Absenteeism: definition, causes and solutions to manage it

on absenteeism, employee engagement, employee app


Do an alarming number of your employees phone in last minute with suspicious-sounding excuses? Or do they not bother to phone in at all and just no show with no good reason?

The diagnosis: a culture of absenteeism - regular, unplanned absences from work without good reason by an above-average percentage of the workforce. Long-term effects include poor employee morale, low employee retention and reduced levels of customer service.

Outlook for the financial health of your organization: poor.

Of course, we need to distinguish this from occasional, individual cases of unmotivated employees with high absence rate, which can be cured with a simple course of your internal disciplinary procedures. A culture of absenteeism, or in other words ‘large scale not showing up to work and getting away with it’, is much more complex to deal with.

This is because if a significant chunk of your employees aren’t showing for work, your company is probably doing something wrong. It’s easier to fire a couple of individuals for poor performance than for organizations to figure out what’s up with your approach to employee welfare and change things at a more systemic level.

Still, with a bit of thought it isn’t impossible. This guide will take you through the causes of absenteeism, how it affects your company’s performance and, ultimately, what you can do to change things.

The causes of absenteeism

It’s always tempting for organisations to play the victim here and blame their employees for just not being dedicated enough to their jobs.

In fact, rampant absenteeism has relatively little to do with individual employees and everything to do with systemic failings on a company-wide level. If where you work has a persistent problem with absenteeism (rather than just the occasional colleague who shirks), chances are you’re making mistakes in how you treat your staff

In other words, it might be time to face some hard truths. Buckle up.

Let’s take a look at some points in the employee life cycle to see where these mistakes are made:

Lax hiring practices

Even the most inscrutable managers make the occasional bad hire. It’s unavoidable.

Occasionally, you’ll take on hires who overstate their skill level, aren’t willing to put the time in or are generally a poor fit for their role.

If, however, absenteeism seems like a permanent fixture in the culture of your organization, it can be a sign of poor practices at the hiring stage.

These often include:

  • Assuming that it doesn’t matter who you hire for lower paid jobs as they’ll leave in a couple of months anyway.
  • Filling lower-paid or unskilled jobs with anyone that walks through the door, just to get feet on the ground.
  • A lax attitude to checking employees’ backgrounds and references.
  • Apathetic management practices .

Check in on your line managers and see what process they follow when a new hire joins.

Are they sticking to the employee journey map you painstakingly laid out and gave them training sessions on? Or has that fallen on the wayside?

One of the biggest deflators for an excited new employee is to arrive at their new job on the first day, only to receive a half-hearted “here’s how you work the till, knock yourself out” induction and get left to eat lunch by themselves.

Apathy, as we touched on above, is super contagious. It’s particularly catching in line management positions, where it leads to poor absence management and few consequences for staying home.

Once already-disillusioned employees cotton onto the fact that there are no consequences to staying home from the job that makes them miserable, absenteeism is the natural result.

Poor employee engagement

Keeping employees coming into work is 10% stick, 90% carrot.

Your colleagues should know that there will be professional consequences if they repeatedly fail to turn up to work without good reason. But (and that’s a big ‘but’) forcing them to show up to a workplace they don’t engage with, or worse actively hate, will only lead to presenteeism.

This is where your colleagues show up to their workplace but aren’t productive, to the extent that it’s only marginally better than them staying home.

The carrot that you’re looking for is called ‘an engaging workplace’. It offers people a friendly, stimulating and sometimes exciting place to work, and is easily the best defence against absenteeism there is.

If your colleagues feel they have opportunities to move up the career ladder, have time to socialise with their coworkers and get rewarded for good performance, you won’t have any problems getting them to come into work.

Toxic workplace culture

Worst-case scenario: your culture is actively detrimental to your colleagues’ mental health and they’re staying home because they can’t face another day in that hellhole you call a workplace

You can tell if your workplace is like this because...well because you’ll just know. You’ll have handled the complaints, or perhaps be struggling to fill the massive backlog of open positions you have because everyone keeps quitting.

Quick note: if you’re reading this thinking “sure, our lower-level managers could be a little more switched on, but at least our workplace isn’t that bad!” - remember that it doesn’t have to be. Absenteeism isn’t just the preserve of companies who treat their employees really badly.

Whilst it’s terrible if it does get to this stage, plenty of ‘average’ companies have issues with absenteeism too - it’s just seen as ‘one of those things that happens’ because it hasn’t reached a crisis point. Absenteeism doesn’t have to be crisis point before it starts to have a negative effect on your staff morale, your customer satisfaction and, ultimately, your profit margins.

In other words, it might be a good idea to act now before the situation starts to snowball. ‘A stitch in time saves nine’, so the saying goes.

The impact of absenteeism

Absenteeism on any sort of scale has a huge impact on your workplace.

Here are some of the impacts it could have on your business if you let it develop into a long term issue:

  • Poorer customer service, as the employees that did show up to work are stretched thin trying to cover their absent colleagues work and fill in for those at home.
  • A tired, demotivated workforce. They’re taking on extra work to fill in for others, but aren’t being paid any more than they were. They get none of the perks of extra responsibility (promotion, pay rise, extra status) - they just feel tired all the time and start to resent their workplace.
  • More absenteeism. Trust us when we say that this is highly contagious. As your employees get more stressed and tired doing their colleagues’ work, it becomes increasingly tempting for them to avoid it by staying at home themselves - particularly if your absence management procedures are flimsy.
  • Poor employee retention. After a while, your employees will realise that not every company has these issues and will go find a better deal elsewhere.

If left untreated, all of this can have a significant impact on your organization’s financial health. A high employee turnover is eye-wateringly expensive (think six to nine month’s salary per employee, depending on how senior they are) - but you’ll also need to factor in how much business you’ll lose.

The costs of poor employee retention stack up

Now, more than ever, people pay for good customer service. If your customers feel let down, however, it’s easier than ever for them to switch to a competitor and broadcast their disappointment in your services to the world.

Think about how many times you’ve been put off a particular company because of poor TripAdvisor or Trustpilot reviews - people take poor write-ups seriously, and will avoid buying from you if your online reputation is poor.

How to address absenteeism in your workforce

The good news is that your workplace doesn’t have to be like this.

You can change it.

To be clear, this will take time, effort and potentially a bit of money on your part - but the results are absolutely worth it. As well as an upsurge in company performance, you’ll have really made a difference to your colleagues’ happiness at work - and isn’t that the ultimate goal, as an HR professional?

Here’s where to start:

Check managers are following absence management protocols

All your efforts will be useless if your absence management processes aren’t watertight.

Check what your managers are doing in this area. Are they:

  • Checking in with employees after an above average amount of absences? This doesn’t have to be a scary conversation. It’s more about checking in, letting the employee know they’ve been missed and establishing whether they’re struggling with anything at work. It could just be they’ve had bad luck with illness this year .
  • Escalating any concerns to HR? This isn’t necessarily a disciplinary matter - it could be that an employee is staying home for family reasons, or because of mental health difficulties. There could be a way that the company could accommodate these difficulties, or offer employees help getting back on their feet.
  • Encouraging people to use leave requests? A good manager encourages employees to take their PTO (when applicable) and makes reasonable accommodations for them to do so. They should also signpost how to request time off on your intranet if employees seem unsure. If PTO requests are ignored, unprocessed or seen as never being granted, it’s likely that employees will bypass their managers approval and take the day off anyway.

If your managers are lax with this, lay on top-up training courses for them - and make sure you emphasize that these are compulsory.

Whilst you’re doing this, you should check that your managers can provide adequate cover when someone is off. If they’re chronically understaffed, they might feel pressured to deny leave requests to hit targets.

In this case, something more structural might be afoot. Which means you should...

Check your employee engagement survey data for sources of unhappiness

Your employee engagement surveys are a goldmine of information about why your colleagues aren’t showing up to work.

(If you haven’t carried out any employee engagement surveys recently, you really should).

There are many reasons why this could be the case, but to make things easier to deal with you could categorise them into these four categories:

  1. Exhaustion: your managers expect too much of your employees and are unreasonable when their expectations aren’t met. There aren’t enough staff to fill rotas, so getting time off is an uphill struggle.
  2. Stagnation: your employees are tired of their good performance going unrewarded. Chances of promotion are seen as slim to none, and people are discouraged by this.
  3. Boredom: potential high-performers aren’t being stretched. There’s no challenge to their work.
  4. Isolation: there’s no sense of community at your workplace. People don’t feel any sort of attachment to your company values and don’t build friendly relationships with their coworkers.

Once you’ve figured out where you’re losing out on employee engagement (and by extension why you’re experiencing high levels of absenteeism), you can then take action. Basic steps here include:

  • Hiring the right amount of staff. Starting with the basics - it’s more expensive upfront, but worth it long-term. Being tight here leads to employee burnout, which leads to absenteeism, which leads to a sky-high employee turnover rate. And as we touched on above, that gets expensive.
  • Revisiting and redesigning your employee journey map to make sure staff have clear opportunities for progression.
  • Making sure HR is seen as an approachable alternative to talking to line managers. Regardless of your efforts, some people just won’t gel with their managers on a personal level, so it’s important to make sure people have someone else to speak to about any personal issues that are affecting their work life.
  • Regular social events to encourage employees to make friends and connections across departments
  • Updating your internal communications technology. An employee app, for example, is a great way for people to submit leave requests and for managers to track absence rates and flag to HR if necessary.

employee engagement apps - man holding phone

Set yourself staged targets so you can check the progress you’re making. These will depend on the issues you’re facing as a company. The most obvious thing to measure would be whether absence rates are dropping (if you can find the info, you could compare yours against your industry standard), but you might also consider:

  • Reports to HR - are they increasing? More reports might initially seem alarming, but if they’re coupled with a drop in absence rates it could indicate that people feel comfortable using the correct reporting procedures rather than ignoring them and staying home.
  • Employee turnover. Engaged employees stick around. Lower employee turnover alongside a drop in absence rates suggests that people are coming into work because they like their jobs, rather than showing up because they know you’re cracking down on unplanned absences.

Remember: poor employee engagement is a long-term problem which will take more than a few weeks to sort out - so stage your KPIs accordingly. To commit to change, you have to be in it for the long-haul (think months to years, depending on the size of your organization and its specific circumstances).

But. It is 100% worth it.

You’ll see it in your company’s performance, where a turnaround in absence rates will improve productivity, customer service and, ultimately, your profit margins.

But perhaps more importantly, you’ll see it in the faces of your employees as they show up for work each day.

You might even see it as word of your efforts circulates and competition for jobs at your company becomes more intense than it ever was - certainly something for you and your team to take pride in, after all the work you put in.

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