Managing Absenteeism

In today’s work environment, there are a plethora of factors than impact our staff and this impact manifests itself in a variety of ways. One manifestation is the visible increase in absenteeism and the general lack of grave concern about being consistently absent especially where a visible pattern is evident.

According to the CIPD Absence Management Report 2008, the absence level in the UK public sector is an average of 9.8 days per employee per year and among private sector organisations the absence level is 7.2 days on average per employee. In my company, we have an average sick leave of 7.44 days per person for the year plus an overall vacation liability of 49% as at October 2008.

I am yet to find a definition of what is considered absence in the UK survey. We have so many different types of leave in Trinidad, so it is important to measure apples with apples. There are some organisations that have pooled all the types of leave into one pool bank.

Yes, in HR we say high absenteeism is usually an indicator about the staff engagement levels, and we are right. To address staff engagement in a time of global financial crisis with high inflation rates seems even more so challenging. We are unable to pay our staff competitive market rates considering inflation levels, as this leads to an increased company cost going forward and may even serve to further increase inflation rates.

Outside of addressing overall staff engagement as a long term solution to curbing absenteeism, I would like to consider some short term alternatives parallel to pursuing the long term initiatives.

It goes without saying that the organisation should first know the levels of absenteeism and the associated reasons as this would largely fuel the interventions selected. One should try to cost absenteeism. We have looked at the annual work days lost (all leave except vacation, national or jury duty) and used the average salary to calculate the cost of the loss time. One should also consider the cost or replacement staff, impact of error rate for temporary staff and overtime costs.

One idea is to pursue improving the quality of supervision by training and coaching the line on how to manage staff and employee relation issues as it relates to different staff demographics. We have found from our exit interviews that employees cited poor supervision as a fairly significant reason for excessive absenteeism.

Flexible working arrangements may help curb absenteeism. We found that traffic is so intolerable that employees say they just decide to take a day because they project severe traffic congestion on that day.

When absenteeism is high, the employees who actually show up for work usually have to defer their own vacation because they are busy doing double duty for other employees on excessive sick leave. Soon enough, the toll is too much and the support employees are also on excessive sick leave due to high stress. This increases the leave liability that requires active management to maintain it at acceptable levels. Hence an idea, maybe to back fill with experienced staff in the high risk areas and the use temporary or contract staff to fill the non-critical roles. Ensure all procedures are documented to facilitate easy staff rotation with minimal learning curve and error rate.

The Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) should be a constant to address any employee concerns that may also impact on absenteeism. One example of a candidate for EAP, is an alcoholic employee who is absent every Monday.

The company should also encourage healthy eating, healthy lifestyles and may even want to subsidise gym memberships to increase the probability of a health staff.

The company’s disciplinary procedure should also seek to address excessive absenteeism as well.

Some companies also pay the employee for perfect attendance at the year end. I would like to suggest a twist to this, to make the earning and payment frequency of such an incentive to be more frequent with an option to accrue the payment. For example, monitor and track attendance per quarter and make payments half yearly. Earn quarterly and paid half yearly gives the employee four opportunities per year to earn the incentive as opposed to earning yearly and getting paid yearly. The advantage is that if an employee is really ill, and must take a sick day, he/she can still be eligible for the incentive next quarter rather than waiting a whole year.

The absence type in scope for the above programme is suggested to include personal and sick leave. For my company this is a total 19 days per year. We propose to pay the employee an incentive worth ½ month of their salary per year if they achieve the target of zero leave. We propose that in scope employees exclude managers and executives.

We have done some initial figures on the above incentive programme and if 75% of the employees have no sick or personal leave at an incentive of two weeks salary yearly and eligible for the incentive using an average salary of the in scope staff, this works to much less that our actual loss in productive days. One should also consider when the behaviour of poor attendance corrects itself, what do we do with the incentive programme, stop it, or re-design it? Each company should do their own cost benefit analysis before an intervention like this is pursued.

These are just some tactical suggestions to our daily challenges that crop up for us to deal with and manage.

Denise Ali

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