From the magazine: Take the headache out of staff absence

It isn’t possible to prevent staff absence – from sickness to parental leave to bereavement, teachers and support staff will, inevitably, have to take days off. As a result, money must be spent on supply staff, pupils will face upheavals in their learning and paperwork will have to be filed. Fortunately, solutions exist to capture data on absences which can, potentially, help to drive down levels in your school. EdExec explores the merits of staff absence management software

Let’s talk numbers; the cost of absence in schools per year is estimated by the CIPD to be £797 per employee for primary schools and £1,328 per employee for secondary schools, based on working days lost at an average of 7.4 days. “Staff absence has a huge impact on schools, both financially and socially. When a teacher is absent, classes have to be covered, which is a disruption to the staff who have to arrange the cover and to the pupils in the classroom. Often, a supply teacher has to be sourced, and this can be at a high cost to a school if the absence is for a few days,” says Kathryn Birch, managing director, Staff Absence Management (SAM Software).

Absence costs money – and when securing and saving money is top of the agenda, it’s important to know if any of this spend is preventable. By understanding absences in your school, you can attempt to put processes in place to reduce their frequency – for example, by offering wellbeing support and guidance, return-to-work interviews or counselling sessions. As Adrian Lewis, commercial director at Activ Absence, explains, “As schools are struggling for funding, absence costs need to be reduced. One solution for tackling absence is ensuring teachers can access wellbeing support and guidance to help them deal with stress.”

Kathryn agrees. “Schools can use absence information to offer counselling support, mindfulness and wellbeing sessions, occupational health referrals and stress management to help reduce absence and increase staff retention and morale.

“They can make sure that absence and wellbeing policies are circulated to help support staff. Welfare meetings could be held to regularly check on employees’ workloads and state of mind, with aspirations and meeting notes recorded. A school should be able to track absence costs, and set targets to reduce these, by using wellbeing to support staff further.”

Streamline absence monitoring
However, as effective as your methods might be for minimising staff absence, it cannot be prevented entirely – and it tends to fall on school business managers – wearing their ‘HR hats’ – to record and log staff absences due to sickness, parental leave, bereavement and so on.

Often a time-consuming and overly-complicated task, with copious amounts of form-filling, this process can be streamlined through the use of absence management software. “As a previous school business manager, I experienced the endless amount of paperwork, forms and spreadsheets that were required to track absence in order to gain any useful information. Having a secure online system, where staff information can be stored and staff can request leave, is essential,” Kathryn explains.

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As with all expenditure, it’s vital that the purchase of such software delivers a good return on investment. “In the current climate, where funding is constantly being cut, investing in tools and mechanisms to reduce absences must be efficient and provide good value for money,” Anna Green, HR consultant at Strictly Education, notes. She says that, by effectively managing absences, levels can be greatly reduced and, over time, this “…can change culture and attitudes, and improve the impact that absence has on the delivery of education.”

Spot absence trends
So, what are the merits of staff absence management software? “It provides a transparent overview of who is in meetings, off sick or on holiday, all in one place, at any time,” Adrian explains, helping SBMs to keep on top of tasks such as carrying out return-to-work interviews and arranging staff cover. However, he highlights further benefits in identifying patterns of absence in the hope of reducing it. “Managers will have absence statistics at their fingertips and an accurate picture of staff absences,” he says.“This insight enables them to understand the root causes of absence and spot trends, such as someone often off ill on a Monday, which could indicate stress.

“By knowing when someone has been off sick, the SBM can ensure back-to-work interviews are carried out effectively. Schools can also offer support where it’s needed and prevent someone being signed off work long-term. Absence management software can bring efficiencies and cost-savings and, importantly, help schools to look after the wellbeing of their staff.”

Anna echoes Adrian’s enthusiasm for this approach. “Installing software to strengthen absence management procedures can provide a good source of management data; this can support in reporting and monitoring on an individual basis,” she says. This kind of software can also go wider than just the individual, enabling you to analyse departmental and whole school trends. “It can improve how meaningful the documentation used within meetings is and, effectively, show impact of frequency as well as patterns and costs of absences, which, often at an individual level, can be very powerful.”

Staff pay is, of course, already the most expensive outgoing for schools, so keeping on top of additional spend due to staff absence is essential. Staff absence management software has the potential to save both time and money – two of a SBM’s most cherished – and scarce – resources.

This article featured in the April issue of Education Executive. Subscribe now to keep up-to-date with the latest in school business management and leadership.

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