Part 22: The Deeper Issues of Absence

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer.

What a frustrating week I’ve had. On Wednesday, while I was at work, I received a message that a member of my household had exhibited symptoms of Covid-19. I was immediately instructed to leave work, and isolate until such time this person received a negative Covid test.

Up until then, things had, I think, been going well. I was back at work after a week’s annual leave in which I hadn’t been able to do much because of the national Covid-19 lockdown. My back was still hurting, but getting better. Progress on the second draft of my novel, Aberrations, was going well (eleven chapters currently completed), and I was feeling okay.

But being told to go home and isolate knocked my mood. Partly because I was worried about the person with symptoms, and for everyone else at home. I was also annoyed at having to spend some time cooped up in the house, not even allowed to go out for a walk. But there was something else at play in my mind about being absent from work, which I’ll come to shortly.

Once I got home on Wednesday to begin my isolation, the first thing I did was check the NHS website to see how long the Covid-19 test results would take to come through. I learned that most results come through in about a day, but some take longer, perhaps up to three days. The information provided a phone number to call if no result had been received by day six. I was really hoping it wouldn’t take six days for a result to come through, and I was strongly hoping for a negative result.

In the end, a negative result came through on Friday. The relief from everyone at home was clear, if somewhat muted. I think there is a feeling that, with the infection rates being so high and vaccination being such a long haul, it’s only a matter of time before one of us gets the virus, particularly as three of us are key workers and continue to go out to work through the lockdown.

Absence from work

One of the things that annoyed me about the short isolation period was simply not being able to go to work. I had been absent from work in the run-up to Christmas, when I was admitted to hospital with a pretty horrific back problem. And some months previously, I had a period of absence due to mental health issues, after the worst autistic meltdown of my life. I like my job; it feels like I am doing good, meaningful work that helps people. So it rankled having to take this time off. But in addition to this, I hate the process of the return-to-work meeting.

I should point out here that I have an excellent employer in my current job, and my boss has been completely fair about my health-related absences. There is no problem there. But the same was not true in a previous job; the one in which I spent nearly thirty years in management. The return-to-work process in that company was traumatic and horrifying for many people. It’s left a kind of mental scar on me, and so any time I have to be away from work now, I have a mental reflex that tells me I might lose my job. And I even had that same reflex this week when I had an enforced absence because of the Covid-19 self-isolation scenario.

When I recognised this in myself; this tendency to feel guilty and worried about not being at work, even though the circumstances of Covid-19 isolation and my previous absences were completely out of my control, it set me thinking about my previous experiences with absence in my old management career in retail. I came to some grim conclusions about how other autistic people must suffer in different workplaces due to absences, poor absence management, and the stress of the dreaded return-to-work meeting.

Let me give you some background. Before my current job, I worked in junior/middle management positions in a huge national retail company from the late 1980s until 2016. I worked in various stores around the northern region, in a variety of roles. During that time, I managed hundreds of employees and so I gained a fair amount of experience in taking people through the return-to work-process after absences. I also had a considerable number of health-related absences myself, particularly from 2009-2016, when I was dealing with a debilitating chest condition that no doctor managed to get to the bottom of. (In the end, in 2018 long after leaving the company, it emerged my chest problems were a side-effect from a prescription medicine I had been taking since 1999. I stopped taking the meds, and the chest problem immediately cleared up. But I digress.)

The company that I worked for in my management career had a pretty standard absence policy, one that is close to or identical to that used by many other employers. It went something like this:

  1. After a first, single absence, the employee should be welcomed back to work, and a check made on their health and wellbeing. They should also be talked through the company’s absence policy. The policy is basically the items on this list.
  2. After a second absence in the qualifying period, the employee should be welcomed back to work, a check made on their health and wellbeing, and they should be informed that further absences within a rolling 12-month period could potentially lead to formal disciplinary action.
  3. After a third absence, the employee should be welcomed back to work, a check made on their health and wellbeing, and they should be given a formal verbal warning about their absenteeism.
  4. After a fourth absence, the employee should be welcomed back to work, a check made on their health and wellbeing, and they should be given a formal written warning about their absenteeism.
  5. After a fifth absence, the employee should be welcomed back to work, a check made on their health and wellbeing, and they should be given a formal final written warning about their absenteeism.
  6. After a sixth absence, the employee should be welcomed back to work, a check made on their health and wellbeing, and they should attend a disciplinary hearing which should lead to a dismissal (the sack).

At each return-to-work meeting, the employee should be questioned about any underlying causes regarding their absence, and checks made to see if there is any pattern or link between the absences. The employee should be encouraged to talk about any support they need to stay in work. The manager should handle the return-to-work meetings in a supportive manner. The aim is to support the employee in attending work regularly. Employers should when appropriate offer occupational health referrals, workplace assessments, and consider redeployment or other changes to contractual obligations if appropriate to support the employee. Any disciplinary action taken for absence should not be treated as punitive but as corrective. In the end, if someone is dismissed for absenteeism, this is, the company would claim, due to the employee not meeting the requirements of their contract, not because the company does not believe their reasons for absence are genuine.

This idea of managers carrying out return-to-work meetings in a supportive way, with a focus on the wellbeing of the employee, and not treated as a punitive measure, all sound great. But in my experience, far too many managers failed to even pay lip service to this ideal, and the management of absence, and the treatment of workers with genuine issues leading to absences, was appalling in that company. The question is: why? Before I answer that, I’m going to explain with examples just how bad that company’s approach to absence management really was in the real world of the stores, where policy was often seen as optional. I’ve changed the details of the people involved in order to protect anonymity.

When I was working at a large Sheffield store, I was asked to fill in as a note-taker in a disciplinary meeting for an employee’s absence. The employee was a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old male, very timid. The manager conducting the hearing was a big loudmouth, a six-foot-plus raging bull, someone I already knew was arrogant and intolerant, and I couldn’t stand him. But he was an experienced management professional, and knew how the process worked.

The employee turned up for the meeting a few minutes late, and brought no representation with him. The manager immediately launched into shouting at him, jabbing his big meaty finger, and verbally hammering this poor kid for being late. When he finally had a chance to explain why he was late, the kid told us he’d been on a checkout, and the checkout manager, who knew the hearing was happening, hadn’t closed his checkout in time, and so the kid had to scan a huge trolley of shopping for his last customer, making him late.

The manager did not apologise for his behaviour in the meeting. The kid’s absence had been due to illness, and there was no evidence he was lying. He received a formal warning. He quit his job shortly after, which meant the company had to go to the expense of recruiting and training another individual.

While I didn’t always see that amount of aggression in return-to-work meetings, and disciplinary hearings, what I did often see was an assumption that the employee was somehow at fault for being absent. Return-to-work meetings were often used as a kind of pre-disciplinary, to frighten employees about potential disciplinary action down the line. Things I commonly heard said in these meetings were along the lines of:

“If you keep taking time off, you’re going to get disciplined. We’re trying to run a business here.”

“Every time you’re off, you’re letting down your team.”

“Just because we pay sick pay, it doesn’t mean you can just take some time off whenever you want.”

“You carry on like this, eventually you’ll get sacked.”

“When you take time off sick, other people have to pick up the slack, and it’s having an effect on them.”

“Have you enjoyed your time off?”

“Is this going to keep happening?”

When I was suffering my long-running chest problems, which twice led to me being rushed into hospital with flashing blue lights, I attended one return-to-work meeting to hear the Deputy Store Manager tell me, “Your doctor is taking the piss.” This occurred when I was at a low ebb. My health had been in serious decline due to the chest problem. I couldn’t exercise, I’d put on loads of weight, and I couldn’t see an end to the nightmare, which meant it was impacting on my mental health, too. But this guy thought it was okay to tell me he thought my doctor was, “taking the piss.”

In one store I worked at, I was given a new department to run, and told by a senior manager in the store that there was a problem employee on the department. This employee had a large number of absences, and constant timekeeping issues. The previous manager on the department had failed to complete a number of return-to-work meetings for the employee, who really should have been dismissed long before now.

I was always suspicious when a senior manager told me about problem employees on a new department. I’d lost count of the number of times I had been quietly asked to manage someone out of the business, which was code for making an employee feel so uncomfortable they would either quit, or take enough absences for us to fire them. I never went along with that, and always made my mind up to deal with employees fairly, and make my own mind up about them.

Anyway, I was interested to meet this so-called problem employee with the absence and timekeeping problems. The guy worked part-time, on a rotating schedule, working one in four Saturdays, with the rest of his shifts being in afternoon-evening slots, midweek. He struck me as highly competent, a hard worker, and he was great with customers. He also had very high standards around food hygiene. He seemed committed. But he was late twice in my first couple of weeks – for which he profusely apologised – and on one occasion, he phoned me in the morning asking for emergency leave for his shift that evening. Clearly something was wrong.

I sat the guy down for an informal chat with a coffee, starting with the fact he’d had a lot of time off, and was struggling to get to work on time; what was the problem? He opened up to me: He was a carer for a family member, and when he came to work he had to hand over duties to another family member, who was also working. They were finding it difficult. But, he pointed out, he’d never been late or absent on a Saturday, because it was easier to get cover then, as the other carer didn’t work Saturdays.

After some talk to get more details, I asked the guy how he would feel about working every Saturday, and restructuring his remaining midweek shifts to come in slightly later, making it easier to hand over carer duties. He said this would solve all his problems. I made the contract change, and we had no more absence or lateness from him. I never took him through any formal or disciplinary action. He was a great worker. My boss was skeptical when I told him what I was doing, but I was proved right. There is a lot to be said for treating people like people. It amazes me a little bit to think of the kind of crap I used to see from some other managers (not all – I did work with some brilliant managers, too).

The stereotypical view of autistic people is that we lack empathy, and I know that in certain circumstances, I definitely can lack empathy. But it always seemed a no-brainer to me that being sympathetic to someone who’d been absent from work was more likely to keep them in work than reading a script saying we want to support you, while simultaneously making them feel as uncomfortable and guilty as possible.

Yes, occasionally, you do get the employee who is a bad seed, and deserves to go. But this is vanishingly rare. In all my years with that company, I only managed one employee who I can definitely say was deliberately taking unnecessary absences and playing the fool at work because he just didn’t care. Just one out of hundreds. Most people want to do a great job. Most people want the satisfaction of being good at what they do, and being recognised for it. But people do get ill, or have other issues, that prevent them being at work.

Absence due to ill health has been demonised in many British workplaces. People who take time off are often seen as weak, or as fakers. I have known people to be absent with serious respiratory issues, and then heard their managers say, they just had a cold. But it is worse with mental health issues. Early on my management career, in my very first position, I had a mental health crisis, which I now know to have been an autistic meltdown, and had to take some time off work. The official diagnosis from my doctor at the time was depression and anxiety. When I got back to work, one manager who had found out my reason for absence (because confidentiality was a joke back then) sarcastically said to me, “Depression? That’s a good way to get a few weeks’ holiday, isn’t it?” That was a terrible thing to hear when I was trying to hold myself together. I was just 23 years old at the time.

So, onto the question of why? Why is health-related absence treated with such disdain by many employers? Why is it assumed that people should power through at work if they are not well? Why is there often a suspicion that people are faking it when they take time off?

Businesses are there to make a profit. That’s what they do. When an employee is absent, the company will usually have to pay sick pay, and then either pay the wage for another employee to cover the gaps, or risk productivity / service drops from not covering the gaps. There is also a time cost involved from managing the absence; the time spent on return-to-work meetings and disciplinary hearings. When someone is off work, it is a problem for the business. More often than not, in a profit-making business, managers will not bother to bring someone in to cover all the shifts of an absent worker. They’ll expect other workers to pick up at least some of the slack, and work that bit harder. This creates resentment. And if a business unit becomes less profitable due to absences, managers start to get twitchy about their performance reviews and bonuses. There is pressure to keep people at work regardless of their wellbeing, and this drives all the wrong behaviours in the return-to-work meetings and disciplinary hearings.

In the last three or so years I spent with the company, when I was still undiagnosed and had no idea at all that I was autistic, my mental health was in a very dark place indeed. At this time, I generally became more aware of mental health issues, and I saw other people in work who were clearly suffering with mental health problems, and using very unhealthy coping mechanisms. I saw managers at my level break down in tears from the stressful situations they were working in. I saw some get violent. I know a number who were consuming huge amounts of alcohol to cope, and regularly came into work drastically hung over. Eventually, I wrote to the CEO, lambasting the company’s approach to the mental wellbeing of the employees.

In the aftermath of my letter to the CEO, I had a couple of meetings with some senior management on the region about the issue. I was assured that the company was about to embark on a program of educating management about mental health.

This program of education took the form of a series of conferences. I attended one. It was chock full of junior and middle management, store managers, HR managers, and so on. The presentations included some facts and figures on the financial cost to the company of employee absence due to mental health problems. That’s right – it was straight into the money. But worse was to come…

A presentation was given by a so-called mental health expert. He had a credible background in health care at a reasonably high level. However, he was now being paid by a profit-making business. He talked about work-related stress, and asked the audience of management about their experiences of workers taking time off sick due to stress. There was talk of many working hours lost, and the financial cost. But then this guy dropped the bomb: Stress, he explained, is not an illness. Stress is a natural part of life. Everyone experiences stress. The conversation should be about how to help people manage stress, not to treat it as an illness. This resulted in a moment of silence, followed by a murmuring among management as if they had just experienced a penny-drop moment. There was lots of sagely nodding. The clear thrust of the argument was that people taking time off sick due to work-related stress were faking illness, not taking responsibility for their own wellbeing, and were costing the company money!

I was shocked. I think my mouth had actually fallen open. The argument this expert had put forward was insidious, because at one level – the dictionary definition – he was right; stress is not an illness. Take this definition from the NHS Every Mind Matters site:

According to this, stress is a reaction to circumstances. It does not say stress is an illness. So the expert was right, yes? Well, no. By going with a dictionary definition, this expert spectacularly missed the point. People do not always speak like dictionaries. When someone says they are suffering from stress, we instinctively know that is shorthand for something like, I have been under unbearable stress for a significant period of time, and it has taken a toll on my health to such an extent that I am now unwell. In other words, while stress itself might not be an illness per se, it does indeed make people ill. Can I back up this position? Sure. Let’s go to the NHS again:

It’s very clear: Stress can cause many symptoms. But people will believe what people will believe. I looked around the faces of store managers and HR managers in that presentation, and saw the damage that had been done. Anyone telling their boss that they were suffering from work-related stress in future was not going to have a good time.

Okay, yes, I know, this is an autism blog – not a blog about workplace mental health – so let me bring this together.

Many autistic people, like me, live in a constant state of high stress. It is a permanent state that only changes slightly in severity, but never goes away. No one should underestimate the debilitating effects of living a life like this. As autistic people, we often feel we don’t quite fit in the world; that we are different from the majority. This can lead to all kinds of workplace problems. And a workplace that is frivolous or dismissive in its approach to mental health issues is going to be a bad place for an autistic person to work. The reason being autistic is classed as being disabled under the Equality Act 2010 is not that autism itself is always disabling, but that the neurotypical world disables the autistic person, and this is never more true than in the workplace.

Things are, I think, very slowly changing for the better around awareness of autism in the workplace. But speaking as someone who was only diagnosed as autistic at the age of 54. I worry about workers who, like I was, are undiagnosed autistic, and struggle in the workplace. They commonly get diagnosed with depression, anxiety and… work-related stress. Where is the humanity going to be for these people going into return-to-work or disciplinary meetings in big organisations like the one I used to work for?

I’ve been out of management for a few years now, but the skills I developed and the experiences I picked up have not vanished. I would give this advice to every manager dealing with absence management.

  1. Always assume the employee has a genuine reason for their absence. On rare occasions – and it is rare – the employee might not be forthcoming with the real reason for absence, even if it is genuine. People can be embarrassed about certain situations, and many understandably still feel a stigma is attached to mental health issues. But initially, assume they are telling the truth, because even if they aren’t, if you offer trust, you’re going to get it in return.
  2. Almost all health-related absences will include a mental health component. Yes, you heard me right. For example, if you have only have a cold, but it’s a cold so bad it keeps you off work, you’re going to feel somewhat fed up. It only takes a couple of other things in your life to also be going wrong; say, a bereavement, or relationship problems, etc, and that cold can tip you over into full-on depression. Be sensitive with people; you have no idea what is going on in their lives.
  3. The disciplinary steps for absence management are not relentlessly compulsory. You don’t have to go up the disciplinary steps for each absence if there are extenuating circumstances. Really, disciplinary action should never be considered appropriate for a health-related absence. It is scandalous that anyone is ever disciplined for being away from work due to illness, but unfortunately, this process is enshrined in many companies’ procedures. If you are a manager completing return-to-work processes then you are the gatekeeper of company absence policy, but you should be putting the welfare of your employee first. You will reap the benefits of loyalty and hard work as a result.

That’s all for this week. I’m going to try to enjoy the rest of my weekend, and then I’m back to work on Monday, doing a job I like, and feeling valued and respected in the workplace. Take care of yourselves.

If you like what I’m doing to for autism awareness, feel free to buy me a coffee…

You might also like Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, a blog exploring mental health and financial independence.

Abominations by Darren Scothern

2 thoughts on “Part 22: The Deeper Issues of Absence

  1. I feel lucky to be working at home. I’m very unlikely to be exposed to anything. My family is being extremely cautious since my sister has Down syndrome and is very high-risk. The isolation isn’t nearly as difficult as the worry of what happens if it happens to her.

    I hope you’re able to settle into routine and stay safe.


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