Taking Control of Workplace Absences

AbsenteeismIts 5am Monday morning as Sam hears the all too familiar buzzar sound ruminating from under his pillow. It’s that’s sound that sends shivers down your spine and the hairs on the back of your neck to stand upright. It’s a sound somewhere between Freddie Kruger finger nails being dragged down a blackboard and a newborn baby crying at 3am. Sam rolls over reaching out to find that one little button. That golden button that removes all the pain.  Sam fumbles in the dark and presses everything else. It seems like an eternity but he finally hits that sweet spot. Silence. He snuggles back into his doona and starts to fade off.  He is at peace with the world and everything seems just right, well for 10 more minutes then it’s time to face the world again, or is it?

In that next 10 minutes Sam lay there trying to justify why he does not to go in today. He thinks to himself, why do I have to go in today?  Starts to tick off that mental list he has created. You know that one:  

  • Its cold today
  • The traffic is going to be crazy
  • I have meetings all day
  • I have nothing important to do today
  • I can do it all tomorrow
  • I haven’t had a sickie in a year

All the boxes are checked and the decision is final. Sam is at peace with the world again. Sam drifts back to sleep knowing that this is the right thing.

I'm IllThe great Australian sickie has become an institutional right for many workers today. More and more, people see this as an entitlement and therefore should be able to use their leave as they see fit. In 2013, the Absence Management and Well-being Report identified that the absenteeism rates in Australia rose to 8.93 days per employee per annum. In a monetary sense, that equates to an average of $2741 per employee per annum.

The impact of these rates are hurting the Australian Economy to the sum of $27.5 billion annually. These figures are indicative of what appears to be a cultural trend for the good old sickie.

If we take a minute to think about the impacts of Sam’s decision how would the big picture look now?

As Sam snuggles back into bed and drifts off to sleep, Mary, Sam’s manager, is trying to find a replacement for Sam. This was the last thing Mary wanted today. So far, two people have rung in sick and she has not left the house yet. For the next 20 minutes, Mary tries to get in touch with her regular fill-ins but no one is available. She thinks to herself “Today is the last day of the reporting period, how I am going to meet this month’s KPIs with two team members away”..

The decision to take a sickie is having major ramifications on workplaces. Whether it be directly through KPI’s not being met, or the indirect impact on workforce motivation, unplanned leave is crippling organisations.

So what is the answer?

QuestionAbsenteeism is a difficult problem to tackle. It takes time, energy and a commitment to changing the entitlement culture that has emerged in the contemporary workplace.

Firstly, organisations and managers need to differentiate between the two key factors that affect an employee’s attendance.

  • The ability to attend work
  • The personal work ethic and commitment

In the example above, Sam’s ability to attend work is based on his actual means of getting to work. For example, his car battery maybe flat, public transport is not running or he is so sick he cannot even get out of bed. These factors are generally out of an individual’s control. Mary and the organisation have limited influence on Sam’s ability to get to work.

Conversely, Mary’s role and the culture of an organisation are instrumental in Sam’s personal work ethic and commitment or ‘Motivation to work’. This motivation or desire to come to work can be likened to Victor H. Vroom’s (1964) Expectancy Theory. It is argued that an individual will be motivated when they can see:

  • Positive correlation between efforts and performance,
  • Favourable performance will result in a desirable reward,
  • The reward will satisfy an important need, and
  • The desire to satisfy the need is strong enough to make the effort worthwhile.

In Sam’s case, it may be that in the past Sam’s performance has not been recognised. It could be that his rewards are incongruent with the efforts required. Worse still, it may be a combination leading to a disengaged employee.

To help Mary manage her teams absenteeism rates, her HR Consultant could provide her with the following three principles:

  1. Absenteeism 2Develop an understanding of what motivates your employees – The first and some might argue the most important step, is to develop an understanding of why your employees have chosen to work at your organisation. Mary should take the time to get to know her team. Blocking out time in her calendar to meet with her staff each month will give her the time she needs to understand why her team comes to work. This will help Mary develop a picture of their individual needs and desires. She can then use this information to tailor their working environment, tasks and responsibilities. Mary will then know that her team is engaged in work they are passionate about.
  2. Embed return to work interviews in your daily routine – Mary needs to implement return to work conversations for all unplanned leave. For Mary this is about checking in with her staff to see how they are going. Simply asking, how are you going? Are you right to be back at work? What can we do to help you catch up? This approach has shown to reduce absenteeism rates by up to 30%. The key is for Mary to embed this into her daily routine and ensure it occurs each and every time an employee has an unplanned leave day.
  3. Monitor and manage increased unplanned leave rates – In many cases this is the hardest aspect of managing absenteeism, as it tends to lend itself to conflict. However, it all starts with data. Mary needs to keep track of all leave taken by her team. Creating a database of leave taken and reasons for the leave will provide Mary with data required to identify leave trends. It might be that Sam tends to take every fifth Monday off. This approach will provide the evidence managers need to initiate a conversation about absenteeism. In the first case, Mary should always start from a perspective of concern. It could be as simple as asking is everything ok? I have noticed you have had a few days off this month. Is there anything I can do to help?

The great Australian sickie is as much a part of our work culture as a coffee break. However, more and more the sickie is having a direct impact on workplace morale, employee engagement and the Australian economy. By developing an understanding of the psychology around absenteeism and the role organisations and managers have in managing unplanned leave; the absenteeism bell curve will start to trend down.


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