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Reducing absenteeism in the workplace may save your company millions of dollars in productive hours each year.
In the UK, a total of 36.8 million working days were lost due to illness, stress, depression or anxiety and non-fatal workplace injuries in 2021/22. While in the US, absenteeism costs US businesses anywhere from $225 billion to $575 billion per year.
While there’s no magic bullet for how to reduce absenteeism in the workplace, there are a number of proven tips that will help you do it, and build a more positive and productive team in the process. Read on to find out more.
As we’ll explain later, your goal shouldn’t be to reach a zero absence rate. However, almost all businesses with a reasonable number of employees can likely benefit from reducing their employee absenteeism rate.
Around the world, average absenteeism rates generally hover around 2-4%. If your rate is in this range, or higher, you should want to get that number a little lower. Here are some tips to help you reduce employee absenteeism.
Before anything else, expectations surrounding attendance and unscheduled absences should be clear to your employees.
This includes letting employees know how often they can be off work and for what reasons, what to do if they’re unable to make it to work, and what will happen if they cross the threshold for excessive absenteeism.
If you have no absence policy and set no expectations with employees, there’s little to stop them taking off work whenever they like. It’s also going to be harder to initiate disciplinary action, because the employee isn’t clearly breaching any rules.
Another extremely basic thing you need to do in order to reduce absenteeism (which a lot of businesses amazingly do not do) is actually tracking absences.
Each time someone is sick, doesn’t show up, is late, or is off work for any reason, it should be tracked.
Small teams might do this in a spreadsheet, while larger teams will need to use an absence tracking tool, like Flamingo.
Tracking absences lets you identify trends and calculate the absence rate of your employees, to know whether you have normal or above average absenteeism. It also gives you concrete data to point to if you do need to address absenteeism issues with an employee.
Some organizations just look at the surface, telling employees they need to be in attendance X% of the time, and don’t care about finding out why employees are absent.
But for absenteeism, there’s always a cause, and the key to treating, managing, preventing and reducing absenteeism is to treat the underlying cause.
Common causes of employee absenteeism include:
By understanding the cause, you can start to come up with a plan to reduce employee absences.
If it’s due to illness, you may need to focus on creating a plan for the employee to improve their health.
If it’s due to injury, you might need to improve your safety procedures at work.
Burnout, workplace harassment and disengaged employees are all indicative of larger issues than just high absenteeism.
If you don’t address the cause of absenteeism, it’s just going to happen again and again.
Much absenteeism is a symptom of an uneven work-life balance, and the inability for employees to take time off and have some time to themselves.
This might cause them to take sick leave often, due to burnout and stress, or simply taking sick days because they wanted a day off but don’t have the vacation days to do it.
You’ll often find that you see a lower rate of sick days when employees are able (and encouraged) to take regular vacations, whether they’re short breaks of a few days, or longer holidays.
Make sure that enough PTO is available, and go one step further by actually encouraging employees to take their vacation time.
A lot of unplanned absences are also due to unexpected issues that come up in employees’ personal lives, such as having to care for children and loved ones, or important appointments that come up with little notice.
You can thus avoid some absenteeism by letting employees be flexible with their working schedules. Allow them to work later, or on the weekend, or move their hours around somehow if they need to be somewhere in the middle of a working day, for example.
Similarly, you’ll have fewer sick days and personal days if you allow employees the option of working from home.
Let’s say an employee has a sick child, or a child who is on school break, and needs to stay home to take care of them. Instead of taking time off from work, they may be able to do their regular duties at home while also taking care of their personal responsibilities.
Some illnesses or injuries are also minor enough that they’re able to work still, but commuting or coming to the office is difficult, so you’ll save the need for a sick day by letting them work remotely.
You’ll have fewer sick days and fewer no-shows if the workplace is built on positivity and encourages wellness, both physically and mentally.
You want to encourage employees to be physically and mentally healthy, and give them the resources and environment to do so.
Part of this involves creating a positive team culture, free of toxicity, bullying, harassment or any negative features.
Another part is offering health and wellbeing benefits to support a healthy lifestyle, such as healthcare, mental health resources and support, and things like paid gym memberships and healthy food at work.
This ties in a little to the previous point, but goes a step further. You should make employees actually want to come to work, by making the job engaging, fun and fulfilling.
For much of the population, work is like prison. It’s where you go to do your time for 40 hours a week, so you can afford to live and enjoy yourself outside of working hours.
For these people, each day off, including sick days, personal days and unpunished no-shows, is a huge bonus. They’ll take any chance they can get for one more day off work.
But when you encourage employee engagement and make people actually want to come to work, attendance rates will go up and the number of unexpected absences will drop.
One thing that contributes to a poor working environment is the tendency for managers and leaders to only speak up about the negatives.
For example, you only talk with your manager or HR when you do something wrong. This creates a culture where people walk on eggshells, and an “us-vs-them” feeling between employees and management.
On the other hand, celebrating wins and positivity helps build a positive and engaging environment. People have a much better feeling when their good work is recognized, even very minor things they’ve done well or done right.
To identify deeper issues causing absenteeism, you need regular communication with employees. Again, not just singling out when there’s something wrong, but having honest and open discussion where the employee is not afraid to speak their mind about how they’re feeling.
You might find out that they have issues at home, or they’re feeling run-down, which can cause an uptick in sick or personal days. You might also find out about issues with company culture which can be fixed.
This also makes it easier to talk to employees with absenteeism problems, as you’ve created a system where it’s not unusual to approach an employee and talk to them.
The final thing you can do to ensure your absenteeism rate stays manageable is to address absenteeism as soon as it comes up.
You don’t want to let absenteeism become a habit. If you allow someone to call in sick every second Friday for six months, turning that around becomes very difficult. It also steadily chips away at engagement and job satisfaction, as well as employee morale across the organization.
For some types of absences, such as no-shows, you want to address it with the employee immediately. Don’t let one unexplained absence go unaddressed. For others, such as sick days, you should consistently monitor trends and have a quiet word with employees as soon as a pattern emerges.
Fully understanding workplace absenteeism is key to reducing it. But reduction, on its own, is not the goal. Your goal is to build an effective team, maximizing productivity and engagement while limiting turnover and negativity. It’s possible to reduce absenteeism in a way that doesn’t actually help your team be more productive and engaged.
Here are a few more things that are important to know about employee absenteeism, to ensure that you address it the right way in your business.
Don’t mistake the desire to reduce absenteeism for a goal of getting absenteeism to zero.
You’re never going to have it so that employees never get sick, or never have personal or family obligations that come up unexpectedly.
In all likelihood, if you have zero unexpected absences, it’s because you’re putting too much pressure on your employees to maintain good attendance, which creates a toxic work environment and doesn’t allow employees the time they need to actually rest, get better and come back to work ready to contribute at 100% again.
A zero rate of sickness absences invariably comes with lower overall productivity, high employee turnover and negative job satisfaction.
The key is to know when absenteeism becomes “excessive”. A few absences every now and then is understandable, and even preferable, as it means employees are resting up to full health.
However, excessive absences, even those with a good reason (like legitimate illness or injury) need to be taken care of, whether it’s by discussing with the employee how you can help them stay healthy more often, or initiating disciplinary action.
The only way you can do this is by setting a benchmark. Look at national and industry averages as they pertain to your business, and use this as a baseline.
Always consider the circumstances by which someone is absent. Not all absences are equal.
Think about one employee who missed work for no reason, just that they woke up and felt “meh” so they didn’t show up. Then, another, who missed work because their child got sick and had to be rushed to the emergency room.
Though all employees should be treated equally, situations can be different, and each of those situations should be handled differently.
You should generally take a hard line on unexcused, unexplained absences like no-shows, but give a little more leeway to legitimate absences like sickness or personal obligations.
This being said, if you let absenteeism run riot without being addressed, your business can incur significant costs.
The cost of sick pay, lost productivity, replacement workers, lower quality work, higher management load, collaborative issues, lower team morale and higher turnover add up fast. Depending on the size of your business, you can save anywhere from several thousands to hundreds of thousands, or even millions per year by reducing your absenteeism rate.
The final thing to know is that prevention is always easier and preferable to trying to cure absenteeism problems.
By the time absenteeism sets in, some of the damage is already done, to the engagement level of the absentee, as well as to the overall company culture.
You may be able to turn their performance around, but you can’t totally wipe the negative effects.
You’ll save more by preventing absenteeism, and in the process build a more positive environment that benefits the business in more ways than just employee attendance.
Reducing employee absenteeism in your business will likely result in higher productivity, higher employee engagement, and a more successful business overall.
You can boost employee attendance and cut down unscheduled absences with the tips discussed in this post. Just ensure that you’re not blindly chasing low absenteeism as a success metric, without leaving room for a normal level of absences.
Male employees feel comfortable to take a sick day or personal day if they need it, yet hold discussions with frequently absent employees to understand and work on their attendance.
Flamingo makes managing your team’s paid time off a breeze.