Are your absent employees costing you money?

The law doesn’t specifically define absenteeism, so what is it?

Generally speaking, it refers to “a constant and habitual absence from work”. There could be many reasons for workplace absence but the most commonly given reason is caused by workers pulling sickies.

According to a ‘Wellness in the Workplace’ survey recently conducted between BusinessNZ and Southern Cross Health Society, it seems that New Zealand businesses are losing around 6.7 million working days per year due to sickness, resulting in an average loss of NZ$1.5 billion to the country’s economy. Worryingly, these figures are increasing year on year with no end in sight.

Interestingly, this survey revealed that most New Zealander’s who are unable to work due to sickness have either caught the illness, or sustained injury, outside of the workplace. In fact, the working environment has little bearing at all on the reasons behind a worker’s absence from the workplace. Yet, it is employers that bear the brunt of the absence and businesses that suffer the direct and indirect consequences.

Sickness unrelated to the workplace is the most common reason for absenteeism, followed a close second by caring for a family member – both of which are completely outside of the employer’s control. So, what can an employer do to minimise potential losses to its business caused by workforce absence?

The answer is simple – have appropriate policies and processes in place!

The main purpose of having these policies is to assist employers in benchmarking absence levels within its own workforce; setting the standards to employees; identifying how to boost attendance rates, and ultimately enhance employee welfare – all of which is particularly important considering the new health and safety laws. There’s no doubt that managing absenteeism is difficult – it can be due to many reasons most of which cannot be controlled or foreseen. For example, an employee may be frequently absent without offering any explanation as they try to deal with personal issues totally unrelated to work. At this point, many employers may quietly think to themselves “so, why is it my responsibility, why should my business lose out because of their personal problems?” and this is not an unreasonable thought. However, the harsh truth is – an employer has a legal duty to safeguard a worker’s well-being as much as reasonably possible. Therefore, like it or not, an employer must be prepared to address these issues even if the workplace is not at fault (particularly if commercial losses are to be minimised). To do this, an internal policy addressing certain factors can be instrumental in reducing absenteeism levels and go some way towards helping an employer comply with its legal obligations:

Workload management – monitor working hours and caseloads to reduce level of stress and deadline pressures;

Flexitime – recognise the importance of work/life balance by implementing flexible start/finish times;

Remote working – provide equipment to enable home-working to keep productivity consistent;

Flu vaccinations – an inexpensive way of preventing illness which could also be offered to family members;

Subsidised health insurance – encourages employees to seek medical attention from the outset increasing recovery times;

Employee Assistance Programmes – provide a counselling service as an outlet for stress or other personal issues.

Yet despite these simple measures, it seems that 4 out of 5 New Zealand businesses still do not have policies in place that deal with absenteeism. Whether you are trying to reduce absence rates, encourage a healthier working environment, or wanting to deal with repeat offenders (those that tend to take regular undocumented sick leave) clear, well drafted policies are a great way of managing absenteeism.

In some cases, a repeated absence can lead the employer to initiate disciplinary measures when in fact there is an underlying issue that really needs addressing. By having a policy in place, an employee will know what standards are to be expected and the potential repercussions of taking advantage of those expectations. Similarly, the employer will know what action to take when confronted with either genuine absenteeism or repeat offenders. The starting point will always be the policy.

If you are one of those employers that do not yet have any policies in place and your business is suffering at the hands of absenteeism, please feel free to give me a call.