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Employee absence: what are the true causes and how can it be tackled?

Speak to most employers and they will agree that reducing absenteeism is critical to their business. However, this is often easier said than done, and many struggle to implement absence monitoring and management policies successfully.

Absenteeism can cost manufacturing companies in particular dear, especially larger organisations. And according to the latest Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD)’s Health and Wellbeing at Work 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic has unsurprisingly had a major impact on levels of absenteeism - with 90% of businesses reporting COVID-related absences.

But to find the long-term drivers of absenteeism, we need to look beyond the pandemic and towards the more fundamental reasons why high levels of absence are allowed to persist. It’s estimated that over 38 million working days are lost to illness and workplace injury alone every year in the UK. Even for medium-sized companies, this can be extremely costly over the course of the year.

In this article we explore the real reasons for employee absence, and some strategies for tackling high levels of absenteeism.

Why employers fail to spot the reasons for absence

The underlying issue is that absence management is something of a thorny issue that people are uncomfortable talking about, and that often slips under the management radar.

One reason for this is the lack of adequate attendance monitoring systems. However, even if attendance data is being collected, there is often a risk of it simply being swallowed up by a sea of statistics. As the current debates around mining ‘Big Data’ underline, few companies have the tools to analyse and present the myriad data they collect in an accessible, actionable way. Workforce information is no exception.

As a result, not only can absenteeism and its impact on the bottom line go largely undetected, but the underlying causes may be missed, and with that the opportunity to resolve these for the benefit of employer and employee alike.

Non-health related absenteeism

While genuine illness accounts for many missed days at work, non-health related absences are still among the top causes of absenteeism and contribute massively to the total number of days a company loses to employee absence.

Caring responsibilities for children and others figure highly among these. A trend long seen in more conservative companies is that unplanned absence is often the only way employees feel they can deal with such matters. In organisations that are less focused on the traditional 9-to-5 work day, more flexible options can be made available, benefiting not only the employee concerned, but also the team, and the business as a whole.

Stress is also another highly-rated cause of absenteeism, according to the 2021 CIPD survey. In this context, we often find that the occurrence of sickness-related absences and overtime go hand in hand. So, for instance, a company with lots of seasonal demand variation may be ‘breeding’ stress-related absenteeism during peak times, as it has to ask workers to put in a lot of extra hours at short notice.

How motivational factors affect absenteeism

How an organisation covers absences can also create a dangerous reversal of motivations. If the policy is to ask colleagues to cover for absent workers by putting in overtime, this can inadvertently incentivise absenteeism.

In these scenarios, one person’s absence translates into a bigger pay package for other team members. Clearly, there is going to be little peer pressure on absentees in such circumstances. Where this happens, organisations not only need to revise their procedures for covering absences – for instance by spreading workload across teams or by shifting team members – they also need to implement mechanisms that create a peer pressure mentality to reduce absenteeism. This can only be achieved by creating a culture that accepts and effectively manages genuine absence and challenges ‘duvet days’.

How can employers manage absenteeism?

One of the fundamentals of tackling absenteeism is understanding the true attendance requirements of the business by analysing demand patterns and then scheduling staff working time for when it is actually needed. Flexible working schemes such as annualised hours do exactly that, rather than allowing companies to fall into the old trap of ‘tidying up’ or ‘painting the factory’ when demand is low only to then enforce weeks or months of overtime when it peaks.

For example, at a medical products manufacturer with heavily fluctuating demand and overtime patterns, annualised hours were introduced after a thorough analysis of workforce management data.

During times of flat demand, employees now have Fridays off. At peak times, they have to work longer hours all week instead. The company’s workforce system enables managers to optimise shifts and keep on top of everyone’s working time. In addition to making a significant impact on the bottom line – thanks to reduced overtime payments and wastage – the company also noted that production staff were happier and more motivated thanks to increased flexibility.

A two-pronged approach is needed to tackle the perennial issue of absenteeism: not only must organisations be open to becoming more flexible in the way they work, they also need to seek to align the interests of employee and employer more strongly.

In order for both aspects to work, companies should not shy away from deploying automated systems – and using their capabilities to their full. The benefits to be reaped are full visibility over absenteeism, but also greater fairness and consideration of the needs of individual workers.

Drive down absence levels for good with Crown Time & Attendance

The first step towards tackling absenteeism is having the right tools to both analyse the situation, and take meaningful action. Crown’s best-in-class Time & Attendance features allow organisations to capture attendance data in a level of detail unmatched by other systems. Time is logged digitally and to the minute, meaning an end to inaccurate timesheets, while absences can be segmented by reason to drill down into the root causes.

With Crown, high-level insights are instantly available, helping businesses target the causes of absenteeism in their workforce with a laser focus. To find out more about how Crown Time & Attendance can drive down absence levels in your organisation, talk to our specialists today!

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