Absenteeism costs more than just money

Absence does not make the heart grow fonder.

There are no two ways about it, but most of us are great fans of summer… sunny days, barbecues, long evenings, and opportunities for rest and relaxation. Yet, at the same time, it can be a difficult time for small businesses to juggle all the employee vacation schedules.

On the other hand, summer is also a time when one or two of your employees might take advantage of the nice days and simply fail to come to work, especially on a Monday and/or a Friday. And, before you know it, you have a habitually absent employee on your hands. In fact, according to the health benefits company Morneau Shepell, most incidental absence is not at all due to an illness.

An employee who is away from work due to illness is one thing, but an employee with chronic absenteeism for no specific reason will cause significant frustration in the workplace. It will impact overall productivity and drive employee morale down because the remaining employees will be called upon to cover for the absent workers.

Chronic absenteeism can have significant financial implications for the organization. This results from employee overtime, hiring term-replacement workers from a temporary agency if necessary, and/or reprioritizing work resulting in some customer products and services being delayed. When that happens, revenue is delayed. Most of the time, these costs are hidden from employees as a group, but managers can certainly see and feel the financial pinch.

In fact, in 2011, the Conference Board of Canada estimated that the direct cost of absenteeism was approximately $16.6 billion, with each Canadian worker taking approximately 9.3 days off per year. Despite this, the Conference Board also suggests employers are not doing a good job of tracking their absenteeism, with only 50 percent doing so effectively.

Human resource professionals and managers know chronic absenteeism is one of the most difficult employee issues to deal with. Therefore, it is important to have strategies for addressing and managing this type of absenteeism. Some of these strategies include the following:

Review your HR policy: Be sure your policy is clear on the expectations for employees regarding their official attendance and what disciplinary action will be taken. Be sure to deal with scheduled absences versus unscheduled absences, tardiness, as well as the need for medical documentation and the discipline process.

Set your threshold: Take time to determine what your threshold and/or tolerance level is for the number of employee absences. When the threshold is reached, monitor and be sure to take steps to investigate the situation further.

Gather your data: Chronic absenteeism doesn’t just happen overnight, so it is important to review your time and attendance data and look for patterns on a regular basis. Be sure that managers are reviewing data for their own departments. Discuss issues and solutions in your general management meetings and arrive at decisions that create consistency across the organization.

Be immediate: If an employee has been absent without a reason, sit down and address the issue immediately. If you see a pattern of absences, call it out. Show the employee your documentation, ask why absences always fall into a pattern. Have a conversation and discuss what happened and why it happened. Try to identify the "drivers" or the root cause of absenteeism.

Communicate expectations: Initially take a coaching approach rather than a disciplinary approach, but be sure to explain what is expected going forward. Make sure your employee realizes you are serious about their attendance and that you will deal with it. Document your meeting.

Create an improvement plan: Work with the employee to help them understand that the multitude of excuses given for past absences might simply be unreasonable. Discuss and help the individual discover ways of correcting the absenteeism issue. Set specific goals for the next 30 days, meet again and discuss progress. Document!

Provide employee support: Make employees aware of your employee assistance program and direct them to these services if appropriate. Sometimes an employee simply needs a period of flexibility and/or limited accommodation for a time; get creative, work together to provide employee support. Investigate potential options to assist the employee. The challenge, of course, is providing the right support at the right time and for the right issues.

Document, document, document: Document every meeting you have with your employee. Should the absenteeism continue, follow your normal progressive disciplinary approach. Prepare a series of progressive disciplinary letters that outline potential actions should the situation not improve. Meet again to discuss in person, and document your meeting.

Another area of growing concern regarding absenteeism is how to manage mental health issues in the workplace, as approximately 40 percent of Canadians are now reporting they have had some mental health issues in the past year.

While these issues are creeping to the forefront of discussions, in most cases, mental health issues are hidden issues that managers are not comfortable dealing with. Thankfully, strategies are now available to help managers provide a workplace that is considered a psychologically safe environment.

Interest in the area of mental health has created opportunities for employers to better assess their organization and give more consideration to the design of the workspace, workload, work pace and other key working conditions such as job content and interpersonal relationships that could be sources of stress at work and be an underlying cause of your absenteeism.

Organizations are also taking more steps toward increasing training and development not just for employers, but also employees in the areas of stress management, resilience training and the impact of stress on employees. I also note that managers are dealing with complaints much more quickly and taking them much more seriously.

No matter what initiatives are taken to create a healthy workplace, these initiatives pay dividends in the end.

For instance, a 2014 return on investment analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that for every dollar spent on creating a mentally healthy workplace, there’s a $2.30 benefit to the organization.

Absenteeism is always difficult to manage, especially when it becomes a chronic problem. However, there are steps and strategies available to assist management in this area. With the costs of absenteeism being so high, it is worth the investment to tackle any issues that arise.

Source: 500,000 Canadians miss work each week due to mental health concerns, by Carmen Chai, Senior National Online Journalist, Health Global News; Managing mental health in the workplace: Advice for employers and employees, RN By Ann Arnold for Best Practice, Posted Jan. 29, 2017.

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