Reducing and Managing Workplace Absenteeism

By BNET Editorial published on 3/27/2007

Productivity loss due to absenteeism is a serious and growing challenge. In the United States, the annual cost to employers for time lost due to accidents is almost $100 billion, and other unscheduled worker absences costs even more. Absence management is a growing body of knowledge and experience that managers apply to the control and reduction of these costs. What You Need to KnowWhat can I do to reduce the instances of employee absences without risking claims of discrimination? It is a tricky balance to reach, but there a number of routes you can try to protect your team and organization as a whole, particularly: • Understand the scale of the injury and absence problem you’re facing; • Discover the causes; • Take a positive and methodical approach to solving the problem. More information about each point is given below. What is the most effective way of measuring the effects of absenteeism? Just as you can do workplace safety audits, you can measure the number of days lost due to absences per department or individual. You can also trace the type of absence, whether it was caused by injury, illness, or something else. Such analyses have their uses but are fairly blunt instruments. A different type of measure is the Bradford Factor. This focuses on the fact that persistent short spells of absence are, in fact, much more costly and disruptive than occasional longer absences. It measures irregularity of attendance using the formula: Bradford Factor = S x S x D where S is the number of spells of absence over the last year and D is the number of days absent in the same period. For example, if an employee is absent for one period of 15 days (such as missing three continuous work weeks), the score is 1 x 1 x 15 = 15 points. In contrast, if he or she was absent for 15 days on 15 separate occasions spread out over the course of the year, the same person’s score would be 15 x 15 x 15 = 3,375 points. This is, to be sure, a relatively rough measure, but employers with experience of absence management regard as a realistic comparison of relative disruption.


What to DoCreate a Policy What constitutes the “best” absence management policy will, of course, change from organization to organization, but when you draw up a policy, you should aim to: • balance concern for cost with concern for people • keep your employees up to speed • collect quality information • Balance Corporate and Human Values The value of an absence management policy, if well conceived and followed, is increased productivity and profit for the company. However, the policy must reflect human values of fairness and respect, and management’s duty of care for employees. Rather than focusing on policing the policy, and suggesting that people are malingerers, hypochondriacs, or cheats, successful approaches to minimizing absenteeism emphasize care, positive thinking, and shared responsibility. The policy should be concerned principally with managing the effects of absence from genuine sickness, while acknowledging that some absences by a distinct minority of employees may be suspect or exaggerated. Communicate for Effectiveness Effective programs communicate to employees the objectives of the policy and how it will be applied. Discussions with staff should be about presence, rather than absence, and the avenues your organization makes available to help them get well. Depending on the nature of the absence, benefits and services you offer might include counseling, job retraining, job sharing, extended sick leave, and so on. Remember that federal and state laws are designed to help employees truly in need, and your policies need to be complementary with those laws. Gather & Analyze Facts To effectively manage absenteeism, it’s essential that you know what you’re dealing with, both in terms of overall levels of absence and the patterns shown by specific individuals and groups. In analyzing your information, differentiate between regular days off, frequent short-term absences, and long-term absence—each may need a quite different approach for corrective action. Supervisors and HR staff should develop skills for discussing absence with employees, not in an adversarial way, but as a means of spotting problems and offering help early. They should also observe patterns of absence and behavior, and particularly developing noting changes in such patterns. Records should be maintained. Factual information is your first-line of attack. When managers and others show that they’re interested and will follow up with individuals with high rates of absenteeism, “sickness” rates almost always decline. Get People Back to Work The purpose of your absence/presence program must be to get the person with numerous absences back to his or her work as soon as is reasonable. This is especially the case after a prolonged absence, when it will be important to maintain the relationship with the person and help him or her to


become productive again. The possibilities for modified or transitional roles to help the employee back into work should be looked at very carefully. When dealing with an associate returning to work after an extended absence, put together a team of people—including the person who’s been absent—to address the issue, as medical and occupational health information will have to be considered alongside working conditions and perhaps legal requirements. The supervisor plays a key role in maintaining contact with the person and identifying suitable transitional work during their recovery and return. More Success Factors However you formulate your absence/presence management policy, there are certain actions that will always help you to achieve better results. • Act promptly. If you notice increases or changes in the pattern of absences, investigate and take action before it becomes a major problem. In some companies a certain level of sickness absence has been overlooked for so long that people regard it as an acquired right to extra leave. • Start with good advice. Some complex issues may arise around medical, legal, and contractual situations, so try to think through these with specialists before problems arise. You have a significant advantage when you can act with confidence and awareness and avoid ad hoc or impulsive decisions. Get managers and HR people talking about the issues together—for example about opportunities for transitional roles. And be sure you or your legal counsel research the law surrounding these issues. Resource people at state and federal agencies can help; you may also find knowledgeable people at local business development centers (often at community colleges) or Chambers of Commerce. Consultants, within this particular field of employment law, are another source of expert advice. • Be thorough. Make an effort to collect data consistently and carefully; to keep good records; to see that everyone receives a “return to work” interview after a lengthy absence; and to communicate fully and regularly with staff about results. This way, fairness and relevance of what you’re doing never becomes an issue of contention. A fact-based program has more credibility and is likely to make a greater impact than one with less of a data-oriented foundation. Case Study This exemplary case concerns a business in which staff levels have been drastically reduced, just as the company refocused its attention on better customer service. The company provides services to residential customers: availability of staff is absolutely critical to the business. It cannot afford to carry previous levels of extra staff to compensate for absence: to meet its business goals a 98% attendance (or a 2% absence rate) is required—an undreamed of rate in the firm’s industry. The company decided to construct an absence management policy based on three principles: • Corporate culture and values. The organization has a performance-based work culture, which encourages employees to appreciate the impact their performance (and their absence) has on their colleagues and the business in general. Employees are genuinely involved in an ongoing appraisal of business opportunities, customer service, and team performance. Targets for controlling absence are set and periodically reviewed.


• A holistic approach. At the same time, managers express a culture of care. They recognize explicitly that, apart from unavoidable injury and sickness, many other factors contribute to absence—such as family leave, say, for having a child or caring for a spouse, or even job related issues such as stress. The policy emphasizes the value of good employees and invests in an employee assistance program to aid the health and productivity of everyone working for the company. The organization invests in rehabilitation to deal with the full spectrum of employee problems, regardless of whether the problem is caused by the working environment. Such an approach recognizes that an employee whose personal life needs are being met is more likely to report for work than an employee who is distracted, stressed, and overwhelmed by life concerns. • Reporting and monitoring. The company’s HR information system provides every manager with absence information, including analysis of patterns and trends and their potential impact on results. Because of the firm link established between presence (absence) and business targets, absence management is a fundamental part of all managers’ roles. The policy is highly visible to all staff. • Results. In recent years, the company’s unscheduled absence rate has been less than half the industry average for the relevant occupational groups. These results have a direct and significant effect on workforce availability and profitability. What to AvoidYou Turn a Blind Eye Some managers feel that absence is just too difficult a problem to tackle, but they’re mistaken. While addressing the issue will certainly be time consuming, the benefits can be very significant, not only in financial terms, but also in building employees’ commitment to the business. A good absence/presence management policy may even allow the organization to avoid problems under discrimination or disability legislation by raising awareness of the whole area—and could give the company an injection of new ideas as it seeks to combat other personnel-related issues such as work-life balance. You Just Pay Lip Service Creating an absence management policy is a great first step, but if your organization does not dedicate enough resources to implementing that policy, you are wasting your time. Make sure that someone (or a team) is given responsibility for seeing the policy through so that you can avoid absence being treated arbitrarily, and avoid legal action brought by employees based on alleged discrimination. Where to Learn MoreBooks: Fitz-enz, Jac, and Barbara Davison. How to Measure Human Resource Management. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001. Topchik, Gary S. Managing Workplace Negativity. New York: AMACOM, 2000. Web Sites: “Guidelines for Absenteeism Control” Benefits Interface, Inc.:


“Unscheduled absences rising at U.S. workplaces” “How to Deal with Employee Absenteeism”

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