Handling absence within schools

Running a business or managing people isn’t easy at the best of times. But if the business you manage happens to be a school then it’s even more complicated.  Term times raise the importance of attendance on all active days, and specific topics needing to be covered within the school timetable. Student’s advancement is a key priority, and absences can cause some significant disruptions to children’s education. Headteachers and managers walk a constant tightrope when it comes to ensuring an appropriate level of staffing. It is very easy for productivity to be choked when someone doesn’t turn up for work, costing both small businesses and schools in the UK billions of pounds each year.

Absenteeism relates to staff members not being present for the working day, with hundreds of reasons and possibilities preventing people from being able to do their jobs. From illness to broken down cars, humans lead complex lives with curveballs coming from nowhere at the worst possible times. It is easy to become frustrated with employees when they are unable to attend work, but it takes a good level of understanding and trust to help employees who are having a difficult time. Despite the unpredictable and costly nature of absenteeism, there are ways that business owner and HR professionals can plan for and counteract potentially expensive situations.

Sickness affects everyone at some point in their lives, with some cases more serious than others. Certain people will need several days of recovery for a common cold, whereas others will continue to come to work despite having a life threatening illness. Having a robust policy towards sickness is the best way to ensure a strategy that won’t leave you bogged down by sick pay and a lack of staff, and can also often help have your teachers pull a sickie.

Life events and unexpected occurrences can also cause chaos in our working lives. Having children often throws up speed bumps for employees who are normally never absent from work and of course require maternity or paternity leave. From sleepless nights to school sports days, parents have an obligation to be there for their children and many people will naturally put their child before their career. This can sometimes be detrimental for businesses due to the unpredictability of children, but again there are simple measures that can be taken to help employees and ensure motivation for those who have to come back after a period of illness, or those who cover the mounting work of those who are left to pick up the missing pieces.

In many ways schools are very similar to private sector firms in their requirements for staff. Often handing over work isn’t possible, as the absent individual has a specific set of skills, or intimate knowledge of a problem. The same occurs in schools, with teachers knowing the students in question, and at what stage of development they are within the subject. Knowing which students will potentially cause problems, or when to spot kids are messing around in class can be essential to the smooth running of a classroom. It’s impossible to simply send children home, or to deal with the situation tomorrow. Classes need to be led. Children need to be taught. Exams need to be prepared for.

Schools do have emergency plans in place. Substitute teachers, citywide cover, and supplying overtime is available as an option, but these are costly. Now more than ever, schools need to think of the bottom line, and ensure that they’re minimising their costs. Being able to plan-ahead more effectively for absences financially is appealing for many schools to help spread any potential costs of absence over time, with many organisations now taking out insurance for staff absences.

There are other ways of dealing with teacher absences, with many lessons to be learnt from various private sector organisations. Being open and honest with employees and not resorting to discipline in the first instance when it comes to absenteeism will really help you to understand people’s life situations and ensure they remain engaged with your business goals, be that increasing turnover, or helping increase the GCSE pass rate.

Often the best advice is to encourage workers to stay at home. With one individual away from the office, only one person needs covering, but if that individual braves their illness, struggles through, and infects the rest of the office, another 3, 4 or 5 people may be off sick, leading to a cascade of illness. Taking the short term hit is often better in the longer term, encouraging staff to stay away when they’re the most likely to infect others.

With those who wish to “pull a sickie”, lack of motivation in the workplace becomes the prime point to consider. While pay grades are set more from policy than from school decisions, and the work life balance relies on any decisions from government about the curriculum, as well as on how often children have to sit SATs, there are alternative ways to help motivate (or alternatively demotivate staff).  Hertzberg created a two-factor theory to help explain worker motivation, describing some factors as positives (motivation) and some as negatives (hygiene). Having a negative relationship with managers and supervisors often leads to dissatisfaction, and an increased desire to take the day off. Unfortunately the reverse isn’t often true. Hertzberg describes positive relationships as a necessity, with individuals not being motivated by such positive relationships, rather demotivated by their non-existence. Achievement, recognition, personal growth and responsibility are often more motivating for staff, with a huge caveat, that these must be genuine, personal (specific to the individual) and timely. Otherwise such attempts feel disingenuous and can fall under a lack of a positive relationship with supervisors, and lead to lack of motivation.

No matter how supportive you are with certain employees; how much genuine praise, and responsibility, there will always be people who will work around systems and come up with excuses to avoid coming to work whilst still taking home a salary. In these extreme instances, the costs of disciplinary processes and re-recruitment if the person eventually leaves can be very costly.

The key to tackling absenteeism is understanding and knowing what to do in particular situations. Robust policies will set the tone for your employees, but it takes a skilled manager to listen to the problems of their staff and decide on the best solution to a problem with absenteeism. Promoting a healthy work environment is a great way to ensure your staff are healthy and happy and don’t feel the need to stay away from work with minor complaints, aches or runny noses, but do minimise the risk of contaminating other teachers.

Leave a comment