Absenteeism is an expensive and global problem. In the UK, it is estimated that sick staff costs the economy £77 billion per year, while across the pond the figure has been estimated at somewhere around $190 billion.
Added to this is the fact that “professionals”, which a huge number of the new working generation (millennials) belong to, have the highest effect on the economy because of absenteeism of any type of profession. The global economy is suffering because employees are too stressed or sick to come to work, and although it’s an age-old problem, there may be some new solutions, so what can be done about it?
What do we mean by absenteeism?
Essentially, absenteeism is when employees willfully and regularly don’t come into work for no “good reason”. It usually does not include authorised absences such as holidays, one-off health appointments or illnesses.
The definition, however, is not exactly clear-cut. That’s because absenteeism is often described as being caused by long-term health problems, burnout, or stress, all of which are legitimate health issues, and may well be caused by the job in the first place.
Why, then, has absenteeism become such a problem? Here are some of the most common causes of absenteeism in the workplace:
Young employees keen to impress and work their way up the career ladder in a competitive field are exhausted. They work much longer than their contracted hours in an effort to go above and beyond, and they’re paying for it. In the US, a recent study found that 23% of employees feel burned out constantly or most of the time, with nearly an extra 45% feeling burned out sometimes.
Burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take time off than their well-rested counterparts, and are also much more likely to actively seek other jobs. Added to this is the fact that they also end up being less efficient as workers, and it’s clear that burnout is a big problem in the world of work.
2. Access to GPs
Imagine an employee is struggling with burnout, stress, or any type of illness. When employees spend all their waking hours either at work or travelling to and from it, there’s not a lot of time left to look after themselves.
If it were possible to schedule a GP appointment for the following day during a lunch break, then absenteeism levels mightn’t be so high. But as we all know, finding the time to speak to a healthcare professional can be difficult, with extended waiting times and unhelpful surgery opening hours.
So employees have to make a choice; do they miss work to go and see what the cause of their burnout-created insomnia is, or do they knuckle down and spend a few more hours in front of their office computer?
If they decide that the hassle isn’t worth it and don’t make an appointment, then the problem is likely to get worse and the end result is either burnout or some other type of illness. If they decide to make an appointment during working hours, then they are spending time away from work. The employer finds themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Presenteeism is absenteeism’s equally ugly twin. Presenteeism is the practice of continuing to work while sick or otherwise unfit for work in some way, usually because of a refusal to acknowledge that there is a problem at all, or because of a fear of letting the employer down.
It’s a problem that makes perfect sense once it’s explained, but the effects have only recently been properly analysed, largely thanks to an increase in recognition of mental health problems.
Just think about all the times you or your colleagues have decided to come into work with a particularly nasty cold out of a sense of duty or because you didn’t want to take a sick day, only to achieve absolutely nothing at the office, and feeling worse once you finally got home. Sound familiar?
Presenteeism can also occur when an employee has suffered a bereavement or other non-health problem, and as an isolated problem, it's possible that presenteeism is more costly to the economy than absenteeism. However, what is clear is that absenteeism and presenteeism go hand in hand.
Let’s take a straightforward illness scenario. One of your employees has a nasty cold but decides to come into the office to show their commitment to their work. They come in and slump in front of their desk and spend all day in front of a glaring screen under hot lights, achieve nothing, then go home.
This will wipe them out for longer and possibly result in them taking the next day or two off to recover. If they'd stayed at home on day one, it might have been enough for a speedy recovery. It's also likely they will have spread the bug around the office, buckling the productivity of a whole team.
How can I reduce absenteeism in my workplace?
As we’ve already mentioned, absenteeism is an old and complex problem, but we believe that if you follow these tips you may be able to reduce your absenteeism figures, and hopefully save some money in the process.
1. Better communication
Good old communication. It seems to be the cure to almost every work-based and private-life problem but trust us on this one. Just think, if you were feeling unhappy about something at work that you couldn’t talk to anyone about, might you not be tempted not to come in if you were feeling a little under the weather?
It might be something as simple as having an overly complex complaints procedure, or a two-week turnaround time for responding to emails. It might be that managers never have the time to speak to employees or haven’t been trained to look out for the warning signs of employees who need to get something off their chest. Improving your work-place communication can go a long way to dealing with, and preventing, absenteeism.
2. Flexible working
Flexible working can help to solve many of absenteeism’s most common causes. Employees have to juggle work commitments and childcare, deal with long-term physical or mental illness, or even just work a particularly stressful job.
All of these can be helped by being able to work from home just once a week or being able to work earlier or later than the standard 9-5 every day. A lot of employees are more productive away from a busy office anyway, so productivity levels are likely to go up.
3. Mental health support
Many causes of absenteeism are mental-health related. Stress and anxiety affects not only the quality of employees’ work, but it also leads to increased absenteeism. Although it’s true that looking after employees’ mental health will help reduce the financial impact of absenteeism, it will also improve overall performance and will make your workplace a more positive and attractive place to be.
4. Generous paid leave
Everyone loves a holiday, and (for better or worse) it can often be the only thing that keeps people going through the long winter months or during the hot and sticky summers. Although it’s probably a warning flag if your employees feel they can only stick at a job because of an upcoming holiday, allowing employees to take time off to travel, spend time with family or just reset a bit will result in happier and healthier workers, and increased productivity. As an employer, planning ahead to make sure that the popular times such as bank holidays or the school holidays will make sure that cover can be found, temps can be employed if necessary, and the books can be balanced.
5. An online GP service
We’ve mentioned that being able to nip health problems in the bud is important, and as an employer, you are in a position to help your employees as they spend the working day in your office. Online and video GP appointments are an excellent perk that shows you care about your employees. It means that they don’t have to take as much time off traipsing across town to a GP surgery, and the speed with which appointments can be made means that the issue is likely to be sorted out early. Hopefully, there won’t ever be the need for employees to take any time off at all.