Managing Absenteeism

Chronic absenteeism is one of the most common challenges companies face today, and one with a high cost for employers. Minor illnesses, and longer term absences, can cause decreased productivity and increased costs. Trying to provide short term coverage for unplanned absences can also be problematic, and often it’s ultimately the customer that suffers. The good news is that there are steps you can take to help reduce absenteeism and its impacts.       

Defining Absenteeism

When employees don’t report to work as scheduled, they are considered absent. While most employees will be absent due to the occasional illness, more challenging are those who are chronically absent. Regular, routine attendance at work is not only expected and needed, it is also the basic foundation of your employment contract with them – your employee is available and able to work.  

Causes of Absenteeism

There are several causes of absenteeism, primarily accidents and illness, however personal problems can also interfere with an employee’s ability to attend work regularly and on time. Anything from marital issues, childcare, financial problems to substance abuse.  Other factors such as job boredom, excessive workload, low morale and poor leadership can also be culprits.  

Types of Absence

There are two types of sick absences – culpable and non-culpable. Most absences due to illness are non-culpable, your employee is legitimately ill and cannot attend work.  

However, the employee who calls in sick and then spends the day golfing, or working elsewhere, is considered culpable, or responsible, for that behaviour.  These types of absences are not addressed in this article.

Managing the Culprits

Your starting point in managing absenteeism is to have an attendance policy in place that all your staff are aware of. This will help guide your discussions and actions when there is an absence concern, and will help you avoid complaints of discrimination or harassment.  

It’s also important to have a good attendance tracking method.This will help you verify if a concern exists as well as provide data to track historical trends. You may be surprised when you begin to look at the histories of your employees, that the employees you thought were frequently absent were not, and those you had not thought of as frequently absent, have a high number of absences, or a pattern of taking every other Monday off sick.  

One other benefit of an attendance tracking system is your ability to note the frequency of late arrivals to work.  

How Your Business is Affected

Understanding how absenteeism specifically impacts your organization is also important. As a smaller business you may be hit harder by an employee’s absence than a larger company that can easily re-assign staff to cover off for the absence. Ask yourself:

  • How does your employee’s absence impact your company’s ability to serve customers and meet organizational targets? 
  • How does it impact the employees who are at work when they have to cover off extra duties?  
  • How does it impact production schedules? 
  • How does it impact your financials?    
  • It is important for you to fully understand the overall impact that absenteeism is having on your business. 

Improving Communication

Lastly, and most importantly, ongoing and open communication with your employees is critical in understanding absenteeism. Regular interactions will often result in discussions around a difficulty an employee or employees may be having, as well as provide a good reading of employee morale levels.   

This is doubly important during times of organizational change, when your employees can feel less in control and more stressed out. Regular communication with your staff can provide an opportunity to provide support for the issue prior to it impacting your employee’s ability to work. A good example would be modifying the individual’s work hours to accommodate a standing medical appointment or providing a referral to a counselling service.

Remedying the Problem

When speaking to your employees about the frequency of their absences, and the impact it is having on the business, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The discussion is not one about the legitimacy of the absences. If it was, their behaviour would be culpable and dealt with differently.
  • Highlight the impact your employee’s absences are having on the workplace. Clearly outline the impact relative to their own work environment (i.e. Sue is always having to look after your projects when you’re away which limits her ability to do her own work.) 
  • Ask what support you can provide to help the employee attend work more regularly.  
  • Do not ask about the specific nature of the illness. Privacy prevails, and employees do not have to disclose specific medical conditions.    
  • Often the mere discussion with an employee opens the door to improved attendance. Recognition that their absences are having an impact will often trigger an improvement.  

Other times adjustments need to be made to temporarily or permanently accommodate an employee with an ongoing illness and sometimes, the employment relationship may need to come to an end. However, proactively managing absenteeism will help reduce the negative impacts and contribute to a more positive and productive work environment.