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Tackling absenteeism in the workplace

Over the past 12 months the efforts of British Airways, Tesco and the Royal Mail to try and resolve the issue of employee absences have been widely publicised and subject to much negative press

Over the past 12 months the efforts of British Airways, Tesco and the Royal Mail to try and resolve the issue of employee absences have been widely publicised and subject to much negative press. Desperate attempts to try and solve the problem using staff incentives such as chances to win cars and free holidays have had limited success. Gerry Baxter from management consultancy Baxter Neumann argues that organisations themselves are as much to blame as their work shy employees ..

Despite widespread efforts to reduce absenteeism in the workplace, the latest figures reveal that the number of absences in the UK has reached an all-time high. A recent report by healthcare consultants IHC shows that 40 million days are lost each year in the UK due to workplace absenteeism and that UK productivity is lagging behind the US and some parts of Europe as a result of this.

Employers are constantly searching for affordable and effective solutions to the problem but few find successful answers. I have spent many years working alongside organisations that have identified absence as a major problem. It is clear from this work that most organisations make the same fundamental mistakes in dealing with absenteeism - something that is true of most businesses in the UK as a whole, too.

The two most common mistakes that I find are:

Absence programmes that fail to gather enough ímeaningfulí information about workplace truants, such as the real reason for employees non-attendance And

Too much emphasis being placed on targeting the truant rather than rewarding the consistent attendees within a company

Most organisations have an effective means of tracking the number of sick days taken by an employee but only rarely do they actually record the illness and the possible reasons for it. It is vital that employers communicate more effectively with their staff to ensure that all available information is recorded. This way, deep-rooted and fundamental problems that could have a long-term detrimental effect on the business can be detected at an early stage.

Recently, the City of York Council hit the headlines with its unconventional approach to the problem of absenteeism. Employees in the councilís Adult Services Division now have their sick calls re-routed to a call centre in London. These are answered by a team of nurses who ask questions to determine the reasons for the absence and then suggest treatment.

This may seem extreme, but tracking the reasons for illnesses can help management to understand why people are taking time off and respond immediately where appropriate.

Armed with this information, instead of immediately blaming an individual, managers are able to first look at the internal workplace environment to determine whether this is the root cause of the problem. They may find that the employee ípulling a sickieí is not the only person being affected by something in the workplace that needs addressing, such as a badly designed tool or appliance, an unskilled and unempathetic manager or discrimination based on age, sex, religion, sexual orientation or race.

Crucially, very few organisations record good attendance or even recognise those employees who take no sick days at all during the year. It is essential that employers focus on rewarding those that are already doing a good job and on retaining these people if they are to cut the overall absence level.

Recruiting and training new staff is an extremely costly and time consuming exercise and it may be months before the new starter operates as well as the incumbent. Companies must realise that retaining good employees is vital to the overall success of their organisation. It is well worth deploying energy and resources into ensuring that they remain happy, motivated and loyal.

Rather than concentrating on the majority of good employees, many managers continually make the mistake of targeting unsatisfactory individuals. A knee jerk reaction to dealing with absences is completely ineffective in the long term. In many organisations there are a high number of employees with no annual absences at all. This should be rewarded and celebrated but is almost always overlooked by management. Targeting only those who take too many sick days is not the most effective way to improve productivity or staff morale.

The golden rule is that if absenteeism is to be reduced, organisations must promote attendance among the majority rather than concentrating on the non-attendance of the minority. Employers need to address the reasons for high absence rates and this starts with the recruitment process. Emphasis should be placed on the workplace environment and efforts made to ensure that coming to work is seen as the cultural norm for all employees. Cultivating loyal staff who want to go to work is the key to tackling the problem.

Most organisations simply react to absenteeism when is occurs and this is an ineffective solution. If employers are to tackle the problem effectively they must be proactive and look to the root cause. It cold be lax recruitment practices, unfair pay differentials or external social problems. Long-term standards need to be set from the outset. Managers need to be trained, performance monitored and, crucially, success must be recognised and rewarded.