Absenteeism is a huge cost driver for any organisation. It’s also a challenge managers constantly have to react to, throwing plans and schedules out the window. A 2013 Gallup Poll found that the average absence costs an employer $341 per day and lifestyle diseases are one of the main challenges organisations face; with obesity costing $153 billion per year across the U.S. workforce.
Hiring a replacement for the day, increasing overtime and lost sales all have a cost that can be measured. However, measuring true absenteeism costs is extremely difficult. Absenteeism in organisations that operate to strict deadlines or rely on a specific skill sets, like doctors or teachers, can cause disruption that is much more difficult to measure. The bad news for organisations is that absenteeism is a sensitive marker of disengagement and poor physical health is only one of a number of reasons why people miss work intentionally or form habitual patterns of time off. The other reasons for unauthorised absence include:
Depression and anxiety are the primary drivers of absenteeism. Creating a culture that understands and is supportive of mental fitness should be high on each organisation’s priorities.
Illness and injury are the most common reasons for missing work. It is good practice to ensure employees stay at home to prevent bringing contagious ailments into the workplace and most organisations will see a spike in absenteeism due to colds and flu during the winter months. For this reason, organisations usually have set sick day allowances in their policy and procedure. A challenge for management is communicating that sick day allowance is a benefit and not a target. Sick leave policies usually require employees to provide a medical certificate and give sufficient notice, but again proper lines of communication, mutual levels of trust and more specific leave benefits, like parental leave and duvet days, will give management more accurate absenteeism information and not force employees to falsify their reasons for absences.
Primary Care – Employees may be forced to miss work unexpectedly due to problems at home with children or elderly family members. Sometimes mitigating circumstances occur where people need to take a day off because of family priorities, like a sick childminder or snow day at school.
Stress and burnout due to heavy workloads can result in employees avoiding the workplace just to mentally recharge. Personal circumstances can also be drivers of stress. Some organisations have tried to accommodate employees that need to mentally recharge by introducing “duvet days”. Duvet days are a formal allowance of time off given to employees that do not require prior booking and can give management a more accurate reason for absenteeism.
Disengagement – Employees are more likely to take days off when they do not understand or care about what the organisation is trying to achieve. Understanding what drives and motivates people should be a first step in trying to improve people performance and engagement in the workplace. A disengaged employee could just as easily be at home preparing their CV or attending a job interview.
Bullying – People that are being harassed in the workplace by colleagues or managers are more likely to call in sick to avoid difficult situations. Bullying can have a serious impact on the workplace environment and often bullies target more than one person, so organisations should communicate and enforce a strict policy against workplace hostility across all levels.
Employees that are guilty of habitual absenteeism are likely to already have one foot out the door. Their attitude is often destructive to the workplace environment and can damage team morale. Having effective communication channels and metrics to measure absenteeism are an invaluable resource for the Human Resources team. Using reliable and real-time absenteeism metrics, they can identify the genuine cases and support with immediate attention.
The key to changing a habit is changing an ingrained routine and instilling belief in someone. It can be extremely difficult to break a habit. Small consistent steps help gradually change routines and build an employee’s belief that they can make effective changes in their life.
A formula used to measure absenteeism is the Bradford Factor, which is over 30 years old and is still widely used by organisations to measure disruption caused by absenteeism. The Bradford Factor negatively marks persistent short spells of absence compared to occasional long absences. It is a very crude metric. However, there is a human variable that needs to be considered when measuring absenteeism and this will depend on the quality of the organisations communication systems and level of trust between employee and employer. Every organisation’s absence management policy will be different, but organisations should always aim to balance corporate and human values. By collecting quality data, keeping employees up to speed on business goals and by genuinely trying to balance concern for cost with concern for people, organisations will make smarter decisions and prevent absenteeism.