Workplace absenteeism could be one of the biggest problems holding your business back. If left unchecked, it can harm productivity, affect staff morale and become a damaging accepted norm within an organisation. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), UK employees were absent for 7.8 days on average in the year 2022-23 – up significantly by two days a year from the last study pre-pandemic.
But most businesses struggle to identify the true causes of excessive workplace absenteeism, let alone understand how to fix it. Read our guide to learn about the most crucial things your business needs to do to reduce workplace absenteeism.
What is absenteeism?
Absenteeism, simply put, refers to persistent absence from work. This goes beyond the occasional day lost to sickness here and there; instead, absenteeism is a much more chronic issue. In the case of a staff member having a known physical or mental health condition, or caring commitments, their absences can be managed and accounted for in advance.
The biggest problem is when absences occur with no clear reason and in no discernible pattern. In many cases, this is a telltale sign of a deeper issue which is causing staff members to avoid working or to hide the true reasons for their absences. Without treatment of the root cause, whatever is driving the absenteeism is likely to become more and more serious.
What are the causes of absenteeism?
Absences can, of course, be caused by any number of factors, with the most common being:
- Minor/ moderate illness. COVID, cold and flu, sickness bugs, migraines etc.
- Longer-term conditions. Musculoskeletal injuries, mental health conditions, stress and burnout, chronic sickness or fatigue etc.
- External commitments. Childcare, caring for elderly relatives, educational commitments, religious obligations etc.
- Workplace-specific factors. Low morale, bullying, unfair treatment by management, poor working environment etc.
Absences will generally fall into one of these four categories and tracking those which are particularly prevalent can reveal solutions for reducing persistent absenteeism.
The harmful effects of absenteeism
Absenteeism can have a range of harmful effects on both a business at large and its employees:
- Loss of productivity. Workplace absenteeism significantly hampers productivity. When employees are frequently absent, tasks are left unfinished or are handed over to colleagues who may become overburdened. This can lead to delays in project completion and reduce the overall output of a team. Critical skills and project knowledge are also lost, potentially leading to slower or less efficient decision-making. Over time, this loss of productivity can stack up, hindering your business’ ability to achieve its goals efficiently.
- Financial cost. The financial implications of workplace absenteeism can be multifaceted. It can cause companies to incur direct costs such as paying for sick leave or hiring temporary staff to cover for absent employees. There are also indirect costs like the time spent by managers and HR in handling absence-related issues. Additionally, the decreased productivity and potential delays in service or product delivery can lead to lost revenue. In the long run, these costs can add up, damaging the company's financial health and its competitiveness in the market.
- Health and safety risks. Absenteeism can also exacerbate health and safety risks, particularly in more dangerous working environments. With fewer staff available, remaining employees can become overstretched or have to perform tasks outside their area of expertise, leading to an increased chance of accidents or mistakes. In industries like healthcare, construction and manufacturing, this can have serious implications for both employee and public safety. Chronic absenteeism can also indicate underlying workplace health issues, which, if unaddressed, may pose long-term risks to employee wellbeing.
- Poor staff retention. High levels of absenteeism can be a symptom or a cause of poor staff retention. Frequent absences can lead to a demoralised and disengaged workforce, as employees who are regularly present may feel overworked and underappreciated. This can create a negative work environment, prompting even satisfied employees to consider leaving. Over time, a high turnover rate can develop, which is costly and disruptive, as the process of recruiting, hiring and training new employees is resource-intensive.
- Staff harmony. Absenteeism can also disrupt staff harmony and team dynamics. When team members are frequently absent, it can foster feelings of resentment and unfairness among those forced to pick up additional work. This can lead to strained relationships and a lack of cohesion within the team, affecting communication and collaboration. A disrupted team dynamic not only affects morale but can also impact the quality of work and the ability to meet targets.
How can your business reduce workplace absenteeism?
If you have identified absenteeism as a problem within your organisation, quick and decisive action is required to improve the situation. Start by assessing whether the business is doing the following:
- Taking quick action when absenteeism occurs. To mitigate absenteeism, it's crucial for businesses to take prompt and decisive action. This involves identifying patterns of absenteeism early and addressing them directly with the employees involved. Implementing a system to monitor attendance can help in quickly spotting trends or repeated absences. Once identified, managers should have open discussions with the employees to understand the underlying causes and work together to find solutions. This proactive approach can prevent occasional absences from becoming chronic issues.
- Building trust between management and employees. A workplace culture based on open communication and trust can significantly reduce absenteeism. Encouraging employees to speak openly about their challenges and needs can help to understand the root causes of their absences. Regular check-ins, feedback sessions and an open-door policy to management can foster a supportive environment. When employees feel their concerns are heard and valued, they are more likely to be engaged and committed, reducing the likelihood of unwarranted absences.
- Offering support for health and wellbeing. Providing comprehensive health and wellbeing support directly correlates with reducing absenteeism. This includes access to healthcare benefits, mental health resources and wellness programmes. This is all about targeting the root causes of health-related absenteeism. Additionally, promoting a culture of wellness and encouraging employees to prioritise their health can lead to fewer sick days and a more productive workforce in the long run.
- Encouraging a healthier work-life balance. Promoting a healthy work-life balance is essential for reducing absenteeism. This can be achieved by encouraging employees to fully utilise their holiday entitlements and by offering flexible working options where feasible. Allowing employees to have sufficient time to rest and rejuvenate can prevent burnout and stress, which are common causes of absenteeism. When employees feel able to balance their professional and personal lives properly, they are more likely to be engaged workers and less likely to take unauthorised time off.
- Investing in employee training and development. Investing in employee development can indirectly reduce absenteeism by ensuring staff feel engaged, stimulated and valued. Providing opportunities for professional growth, training and career advancement demonstrates a company's commitment to its employees' futures. This investment can lead to increased loyalty and a sense of belonging, reducing the likelihood of absenteeism. Employees who feel valued and see a clear career path within the organisation are more motivated and less likely to be absent without genuine reasons.
- Clarifying attendance policies. Establishing a clear and fair attendance policy is fundamental for managing absenteeism. This policy should outline expectations regarding attendance, the process for reporting absences, the consequences of unauthorised or excessive absenteeism and most importantly clearly define what constitutes absenteeism. It's important that this policy is written with the input of employees, communicated effectively and applied consistently. A transparent policy provides a framework for both employees and managers to address absence-related issues and ensures that all staff members are aware of their responsibilities.