Managing Attendance While Controlling Absenteeism: A Guide for Irish Employers

by Mary Cullen

In Employment Law Compliance,

apple-set_1964106c1-300x187What is absenteeism?  At its simplest, it’s when an employee is not physically present – though there is also the “presenteeism” of employees being physically present but not adequately focussed on their work.  This could result from a lack or limit on paid sick time, or indeed worry at how their absence would be perceived.  According to Professor Ciarán O’Boyle, of the Royal College Of surgeons, “researchers have found that presenteeism can cut individual productivity by one-third or more”!

However, let’s focus on the more conventional physical absence.  Such absenteeism is a problem.  Simply put – it’s a cost – whether or not you have paid sick time.

There is the obvious loss of productivity – the employee cannot do their own work if they’re absent.     Also, other employees may be depending on the absent employee for something – so the collective productivity too is affected.  Continued absence by one person can also affect the morale of others, while there can also be costs associated with getting any temporary replacement and/or paying overtime to others.

The impact of absence can be felt more acutely in a small organisation where employees are more inclined to wear more than one hat.  Sometimes particular people can be lynchpins.  The situation can be exasperated if the absent lynchpin is in a customer-facing role.  This affects customer satisfaction and persistent customer dissatisfaction can be a business killer.  Recurring revenue can cease.  Repeat sales and referrals can reduce or stop.  And those dissatisfied customers can spread their angst virally at tremendous speed.   There can also be serious problems if the absent person is on the critical path for a project.  Their absence can cause the project to be delayed – this can mean project failure if there is a deadline associated with the project’s completion.

So attendance needs management and absenteeism needs to be controlled.  Such control is aided by knowing why the absenteeism is occurring.  Knowing the reasons allows your organisation to put in place optimally-focussed preventative measures.  And prevention needs to be at the core of absence management.

By the way, when looking at causes, be sure to distinguish between long-term and short-term absences.  They are different.  And they have different causes.  For example, long-term absence can be due to stress.  Ok – we need adrenaline.  And there is such a thing as good stress.  But what are you doing about chronic bad stress?  Are you focussed on its prevention?  Are you supportive of people suffering from it?

Absence can also be caused by an injury.  Do your desk-bound employees have ergonomically sound workspaces?  Have they been trained in how to type and sit so as to reduce the chances of getting repetitive strain disorder?  Are their screens at the right height to prevent neck strain?  Are they encouraged to take breaks to avoid eye-strain and excessive stiffness?  Have your mechanical equipment using employees been trained in the use of the equipment?  Have your employees received manual handling training?

A wellness programme can sometimes allow employees to get basic health checks done – heart rate, weight, blood pressure, etc. – without leaving work to do so.  This saves time.  Secondly, a wellness programme can have benefits in how employees then adjust their lifestyle to improve their health, e.g., participating in a fitness programme that’s focussed on reducing problems caused by lower back pain.  And the convenience of having a programme onsite makes it more likely that they’ll actually avail of the provision.

By the way, if this all sounds clinical – as if employees are being viewed simply as crude value-producing units – it isn’t.  The employees and the employer both benefit from reduced absenteeism.  According to a 2018 Department of Health Research Paper, the introduction of even a limited range of health and wellness initiatives in the workplace is proven to have a favourable effect on the health behaviours of physical activity and smoking cessation; on health outcomes of weight and BMI, stress/distress, anxiety and depression, and mental wellbeing; and on organisational outcomes of work-ability and sickness absences.

Another plank of a strategy for attendance management could be to incentivise attendance.  You may have some employees who will sometimes have less than honourable intentions.  Could you incentivise attendance so as to reduce the number of “sickies” that people pull – perhaps by the provision of some sort of prize?  Or how about ensuring a challenging environment where your employees are actually motivated to come to work.  Or perhaps a financial incentive which people receive if the company is sufficiently profitable and they achieve their individual performance goals?  A word of caution though on incentivising attendance.  You don’t want sick people coming to work and infecting others while they chase their attendance prize!

You can also help your organisation’s absenteeism rate by having a clear, written attendance policy.  Employees can be absent for a myriad of reasons – some of which are genuine and some of which are not.  These can include illness or injury, childcare issues, personal problems, addiction problems, mental health issues, bullying problems and other problems associated with the workplace – workload, management, etc.

Do your employees know what supports you offer to them to help them deal with issues?  Do you have an Employee Assistance Programme or EAP in place?  (An EAP usually includes a wellness programme which was mentioned earlier.)  Such a programme, if designed well, can help you identify and resolve personal concerns for your employees in such areas as health, relationships, money, alcohol, drugs, stress or other personal issues.

Do your employees know what is considered a reasonable reason for missing work?  For example, what about an employee whose car is off the road for some repairs but who lives within a reasonable distance of public transport?  Or an employee that’s a parent taking time off to be with a child who’d be fine with a childminder?  Is this sick time?  Holiday time?  Undefined?  Employees need clearly identified boundaries – they’re the type of boundaries that are harder to push against as there’s less wiggle room.

Your attendance policy could also define a so-called “trigger point” – a threshold of absenteeism which, if exceeded, triggers a formal conversation between the employee and their line manager.  The policy might also define a further trigger point that could cause the disciplinary process to be invoked.  Having an attendance policy also helps send a cultural message to employees.  It is helping to make clear that your organisation has a culture of attendance.  It tells employees that they are expected to be at work.

Your policy could also specify that there will be return-to-work interviews.  As an end in itself, such interviews can allow you to remind employees of what’s expected of them.  They can also help your organisation understand the underlying causes of why employees miss work.  And the knowledge that there will be such an interview might lessen the pulling of “sickies” that we spoke about earlier (in the context of incentivising attendance).

Of course, like all policies, it is crucial that your attendance policy is actually used and not simply allowing a box to be ticked by virtue of its existence.  It needs to be used consistently and across the entire organisation.  You need to ensure that no blind eye is ever turned to habitual offenders.  A lack of consistency in the application of a policy can negatively affect morale – let alone something more severe like an employee getting visibly preferential treatment.  Applying the policy consistently will, of course, be aided by your managers being trained in managing absence.

Another important plank of an attendance policy is the recording of absences.   Recording absences allow relevant people such as line managers, colleagues, payroll, external stakeholders, etc., to be notified.   The recorded absences can then be totalised – by employee and perhaps in other ways such as by business unit, per week/month, etc.  These totals can be a management aid, e.g., highlighting employees with unusual absenteeism levels, comparing how absenteeism varies by department, how it varies over time, etc.

Obviously, the decisions flowing from this information-gathering can only be truly useful if the absence recording is being done consistently across the organisation.   This requires a robust HR system to be in place.   Such a system can be invaluable – ensuring consistency, accuracy, transparency and timeliness.

Maybe you’ve tried to make this work through paper, or Excel.  But such methods can be error-prone, have significant administration associated with them, and preclude the fluid sharing of information.  Also, automatic capabilities such as timely report generation are practically impossible.

To get expert and professional guidance on absence management and indeed on the value of HR Information Systems call Mary Cullen or Liam Barton on 056 770 1060 or email mcullen@insighthr.ie.

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