Managing the absenteeism risk in accountancy

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As technology continues to change the face of accountancy there are many opportunities, but also anxiety - and a knock-on risk to employee health.

The traditional role of accountants is shifting and firms are facing choices over how to change in tandem to support and best develop staff.

Carl Reader, chairman of finance firm d&t, believes firms need to face up to the evolution fast. His firm has undergone huge cultural change in order to both evolve and address growing pains.

He said: “Accountants are shifting from being a retrospective number cruncher to a forward thinking advisor. What they were doing only five years ago compared to what they will be doing in five years is dramatically different.

“Workplace stress will become more of an issue for accountants in general as expectations from partners change.

“Accountancy tends to attract people who are quite compliant and value stability so any change can be perceived as being challenging.”

Related, but subtly different skill sets, are now called for from accountants, who are increasingly required to offer business development and performance advice. The accountant’s role is increasingly one of interpreting the reports and data which used to be their remit to produce.

It was partly this, but largely the growth of d&t from a staff of eight to 60 that pushed Carl and business partner Ben Herbert to reassess the whole organisational structure.

Senior management began to feel standards were starting to slip. They noted a slight reduction in productivity and predicted impending reduced client satisfaction. Absenteeism was creeping up and they felt buy-in from employees to their overall vision was decreasing.

They wanted individuals to continue to understand their own value in the bigger picture.

Carl said: “The firm had grown from a point where we knew the names of everybody’s partners and pets. It became harder and harder to keep personal touch with all team members.

“We found not everybody shared the same values and it affected us in a number of ways.

“The first thing we did was implement more monitoring procedures and use online HR tools to help understand staff morale, absenteeism and holiday planning.

“The change process is quite painful. To paraphrase our staff, they were basically saying ‘why are we changing, what’s going on?’. Perhaps at that point they didn’t see a better way of doing things.”

The firm shifted from a whole business management structure to a pod system, creating teams of six that hold each other to account, to try to create a small business culture in a larger organisation. Targets were broken down from monthly to weekly.

The firm introduced staff engagement surveys - anonymous surveys performed by a third party to give teams the chance to voice concerns and express how engaged they were with the business. Scores got worse before they got better.

They also put effort into passing on their ethos on absenteeism and presenteeism. Staff were made aware that if they were ill, it was in the interests of all for them to take enough time off to fully recover. Additionally, duvet days were awarded as rewards in recognition that staff are human and sometimes just need a break.

Proactive action is necessary to manage absenteeism and presenteeism

It’s the kind of proactive cultural shift referred to in the conclusion of HR consultants Adviser Plus’ The Absenteeism Report 2018.

The report said: “A failure to have a workplace health strategy can cause businesses to be stuck solely in a reactive setting and will mean that they don’t see the benefits of a holistic approach.

“Companies need to migrate to a position in which they use technology at their disposal, and the data it provides, in a proactive way.”

As businesses grow, they’d be particularly wise to have an increased awareness of absenteeism and its causes, according to statistics. Large organisations employing 500 or more people report the highest rate of sickness absence across all business sizes.

In 2017, this stood at 2.3 per cent compared with a rate of 1.6 per cent for workers in organisations that employ fewer than 25 people, according to the Office for National Statistics.

In naturally evolving times for the accountancy sector it’s vital for partners to remember that even change with the specific and central intent of making employees’ working lives better can cause anxiety.

The Canadian organisation Workplace Strategies for Mental Health has specific advice for helping employees to manage change.

Tips include explaining new responsibilities clearly, listening carefully to concerns and considering temporary lowering of expectations or demands or additional skills training

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