Curbing absenteeism in the workplace

I couldn’t even begin to count how many times during all my years as a recruiter that clients would ask me if I had a solution to their ongoing battle with absenteeism. I can remember one such occasion up in Hong Kong when a client asked if I knew the secret to reducing absenteeism in the workplace and while I was talking to her I looked around and smiled nervously (not to mention somewhat guiltily) to myself given that half of my own team had called in sick on that particular day.

Many business owners and team managers would probably rate trying to solve this all too common workplace phenomenon right up there with cracking the Da Vinci Code or solving the legend of the Fountain of Youth.

I doubt anyone will ever be able to curb workplace absenteeism entirely, but there are certainly steps that can easily be taken to help prevent it from spiralling out of control.

Towards the end of last year, I read an interesting article that reinforced how the effects of absenteeism in the workplace are (not surprisingly) directly proportional to productivity.

Any small business owner knows what it’s like to experience the knock-on effect of a team member calling in sick. If one of the sales team is out of action, then naturally new business development slows right down; if the receptionist is off, time is either invested in training a temp for the day (a costly exercise), or in pulling other team members away from their core duties to cover the phones; and if someone from accounts rings in sick at month end, well then all hell can break loose and it’s not pleasant.

The article I referred to above goes on to describe various personal factors that can contribute to increased absenteeism. One such factor is personal attitude. Employees with a strong work ethic will respect their work and appreciate the contribution they make to their employer. On the other hand, employees with a low work ethic are undisciplined and may also have integrity issues. With little obligation towards the organisation, absenteeism comes easily to them.

As an employer, it’s essential that you raise the issue of absenteeism during your interviews with potential new employees. Even asking something along the lines of “when I conduct references, what will your past employers say about your level of absenteeism?”. Then look (and listen) very carefully to how they respond. Of course you will then question absentee levels with those past employers when you actually speak to them as part of the reference checking process.

Personal factors aside, workplace factors such as stress or the pressure at work can also take their toll on employees resulting in increased levels of absenteeism.

Employers and managers should always be asking themselves what type of environment they have created for their people. Environments with a high level of morale typically see fewer employees off on sick leave than workplaces where morale is low.

There is no denying that when people are genuinely sick, then they shouldn’t come to work. After all nobody wants to work in a germ-infested office. But if an employee wakes up and sneezes once or has an itchy eye and calls in sick or, worse still, just can’t be bothered coming in to work at all, then the onus is on the business owner or manager to investigate what is really going on.

The article also refers to the importance of measuring absenteeism. Consider if you will these two ratios:

Lost Time Rate

(Number of working days lost / total number of working days) x 100

Individual Frequency

(Number of absent employees / average number of employees) x 100

Having managed sales teams myself in the past and having run the numbers based on formulae similar to those outlined above, I used to offer additional incentives to staff who didn’t take sick leave and I would measure this every six months. And whether I rewarded individuals with additional annual leave, gift vouchers or weekends away, I started to appreciate that unless someone was really sick, the absenteeism in the office started to reduce.

I also implemented a policy where I would ask for a medical certificates if a staff member took sick leave on either side of a long weekend, and you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out what resulted there too.

However once you have absenteeism more under control, the other (perhaps more recent) workplace phenomenon which business owners and employers have to be conscious of is presenteeism … but I will leave that topic for next time.

About Paul Slezak

Cofounder at RecruitLoop. I've been a hands on recruiter, manager, trainer, coach, mentor, and regular speaker for the recruitment industry for 20 years. Follow me @paul_slezak.