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Top 10 Absence Management Tips for Law Firms

As legal businesses continue to grow and scale, the need to manage absences; both authorised and unauthorised, becomes paramount. Whilst it is important to properly manage the holiday absence process, HR Managers in the sector increasingly realising the need to effectively track sickness levels within their organisations.

The legal profession is amongst the most stressed in the UK, ranking third. A study conducted by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) placed the legal profession just slightly below nurses and teachers for prevalent stress levels.

It ranked as the second highest cause of short term absence amongst the profession at 8 percent, and was represented as the third highest cause of long-term absence at 22 percent. Taking into account legal workload levels, and financial and moral impact of the nature of the job, this probably does not come as much of a surprise.

However, whilst the statistics may look worrying, making some simple workplace changes could help you to take charge of absences, lessen the negative impact on your organisation, and encourage positive change for your employee

1.Invest in good software

Many legal firms are increasingly turning to self-service software to aid them in dealing with absence management rates. With time such a precious commodity in the industry, HR Managers are looking to empower employees and line managers to manage their own holiday requests, sickness records and absence approvals.

Alternatively, managing barristers and solicitors can utilise such software to delegate absence management responsibilities to legal secretaries, who can log and request on their behalf. This in turn frees up crucial admin time for HR and managers alike – a typical legal company could save up to 121 admin days per year by utilising the right software

2.Set up an official structure for absences

Ensuring that absences are properly tracked, managed and resolved can save an HR Manger crucial admin time, especially if an effective structure is put in place. Keep a log of leave dates and durations, and conduct ‘return to work’ interviews as a matter of principle for any employee returning from a period of sickness.

This could take the form of a quick, informal chat, but could also necessitate a longer, formal and structured discussion with an employee who may have had a longer-term absence with a serious illness. This will allow you to better understand their longer-term condition, and to discuss any reasonable adjustments that may need to made going forward.

3.Encourage healthy living

Leading a healthy lifestyle can contribute to reduced levels of sickness and absence within your organisation, and is particularly pertinent for the long hours the legal profession put in. Think about easy ways that you help your teams with this: could introduce a ‘fruit a work scheme?’ What about introducing subsidized yoga classes at lunchtimes?

One of the easiest ways to encourage good health is to introduce an occupational health team, who can provide professional guidance and advice to employees with specific concerns. Ultimately, think about the profile of your employees, and what would most appeal to them.

4. Work out your minimum staffing levels

If you have invested in HR or advanced absence management software, then you should be to calculate your minimum staffing levels. You can split employees into teams or departments, and then set ‘holiday limits’ for the different groups. If, for example, you have team working a long-running legal case, you may need any two of the five team members to be in the office at time.

If two members of the team have already booked time off, a minimum staffing level would automatically trigger if a third request was entered, and a rejection would be sent, alerting them to the clash and advising booking a different date.

5.Recognise and celebrate achievements

All too often, many firms are quick to highlight negative or less than glowing feedback, but slow to recognise or praise great achievements or efforts made by their employees.

Providing recognition, awards and rewards for positive client feedback, case outcomes, or even winning a hard judgement, is great way to make your employees feel valued at work. This aligns with a wider process of providing regular, honest feedback on an employee’s progress – often, an employee may know when they are underperforming, but are not recognised when they go above and beyond to make a real difference.

6.Embrace flexible working practices

As ‘Millennial’ employees begin to dominate the workplace, increasing numbers of lawyers are looking to challenge the long-held perceptions of punishing hours and endless cases that surround the profession.

Flexible working is slowly becoming the norm across many industries, with employees campaigning for a better work/life balance. The legal industry has arguably been one of the slowest to adapt to this practice, but with the right technology in place, it is feasible to allow employees to work remotely, from any location, if they request to.

If your employees have a secure connection via their home computer, or they can access the files and systems they need to via a tablet or mobile device, then it really does pay to authorize as many flexible working requests as you can.

7.Encourage employees to use holiday

Within the legal sector, there is often a stigma surrounding taking too much annual leave, with lawyers often worried this could have a detrimental effect on their career progression. However, without careful monitoring, this can very quickly turn into an epidemic of employees becoming burnt out due to a lack of breaks.

ONS surveys have shown that up to 40% of workers do not take their full holiday allowance, and up to £17 Billion has been ‘gifted’ to employers in free work through employees not using their allowance.

Ensure that you monitor holiday levels, and send alerts to employees who are nearing the end of the year with holiday left to take. Encouraging the use of annual leave can ultimately help to reduce absence caused by stress, exhaustion and mental ill health.

8.Provide coaching and training programmes

It could be argued that lawyers undertake an extensive training programme prior to entering the profession, spending on average three years at university before undertaking more training once they enter a law firm.

However, lawyers would argue that once they reach a certain level in the profession, the emphasis on coaching and mentoring lessens. It would make sense to ensure that you have a comprehensive training and development programme in place within your firm, extending from trainees all the way to senior or managing partners.

Those in senior positions are often still keen to learn, and training doesn’t have to be law-related – offering courses on personality demographics, equality and diversity, and leadership skills can really make a difference to attitudes and morale within your firm, as well as to its reputation profile within the legal industry.

9.Consider perks at work schemes

Going hand-in-hand with an encouraging approach to healthy living, many legal organisations are now offering ‘perks at work’ schemes to employees. Typically, these include discounted gym memberships, deals on gadgets such as Fitbits, and also allows employees to build up ‘health points’ to spend on coffees, restaurant deals, and even cinema tickets!

Promoting the idea of healthy living being rewarding, and encouraging relaxation activities during leisure time, can reassure employees that you care as much about their mental and physical health during their free time as you do during their working day.

10.Encourage regular team building

Time away from the office environment can be a great way for teams to rebuild and reconnect on a personal level, particularly for lawyers who spend long hours on complicated briefs. The type of team building that may appeal will differ depending on the tastes and dynamics of your organisations, but ‘away days,’ featuring timetables of different activities, are almost universally popular.

Alternatively, if you can’t spare a whole day away from the office, or have a smaller slot in which to encourage team bonding, organising something as simple as an office dinner, drinks party, or even a group exercise class could prove to be an effective stress reliever! 

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