In some sectors, absence can account for around 5% of direct payroll costs. It has often huge cost implications. That is usually a big number, often as much as shoplifting, shrinkage and other losses. So why don’t many organisations even try to measure it and manage it effectively?

Is it more rife in the public than the private sector? Why is to high in big, perhaps overstaffed organisations? Why don’t self-employed people seem to get ill?

In the U.K. it has been estimated that the costs of absence exceed £25 billion per annum. At an individual level the costs include hiring replacement staff, increasing over-time, losing sales, missing deadlines and generally poor customer service.

Results from the CBI suggest that top organisations have on average 2-3 days absence per annum per employee, while for badly performing organisations it is 10-14 days. This is particularly problematic for lean-process, just-in-time management, or where suddenly absent staff, say in a school or surgery can cause major disruption. 

But, it seems, fewer than half of employers monitor the incidence cause or cost of  absenteeism for their organisation. Nor do they have a target or a process to reduce it. Most don’t know even therefore whether absenteeism is high or low compared to sector averages.

It all may seem a bit too embarrassing to admit the problem. Some may be scared of vtrying to introduce a system which monitors such things. 

One reason for the problem is that there seems to be no way and nobody to analyse the data on a spreadsheet. There are a range of possibilities. First, there is the clock-in method, given up by most companies years ago. Now there is the more insidious practice of using ‘swipe’ entry card data or desktop computer log-in as data. That is easy, can be done under the guise of security and works increasingly efficiently

But the fact that the person has not come to work does not mean absenteeism. They could just as well be on holiday, working from home, or at a meeting on a different site. 

Computer log-in data, can of course, be collected anywhere, but also perhaps used as a smoke screen: the modern day equivalent of the ‘jacket on the chair’ trick. The fact that someone is on-line can mean little or nothing about the work they are supposed to do.

The question is who then collects, interprets, and can act on this data? It seems to many astonishing that this is not done and thought by HR as a fundamental part of what they do. 

Analysis of absenteeism can highlight all sorts of ‘hot spots’ Why are some people so frequently absent; why are the people in one department 3 times as likely to go absent as people in another; why people at grade 4 (supervisors) go absent at 8 times the rate of those at grade 5 (junior managers)? And why do some individuals tend to have the odd day while others take whole weeks off?

One reason why some organisations don’t gather absenteeism data is because they don’t really want to know. They also refuse staff surveys for the same reason. Of course they do know and feel embarrassed but powerless. Absenteeism is a hot issue. What if you find women, ethnic minorities or young people have much higher absenteeism? The work life balance mantra is soon chanted. You get lots of bad publicity. So sensitive that you are prepared to absorb the costs of normative absenteeism which soon becomes culturally stabilised. 

The causes of absenteeism are many: poor management; poorly designed systems and workloads; poor employee care programmes. So what to do? First, log the absenteeism data and let everyone see the results. Then make it a supervisor/management issue, not (exclusively) an HR issue. Third, institute simple, subtle but random ‘return-to-work’ interviews. Four, consider how one can be more flexible in work scheduling. Five, hold organisation-wide (all level) meetings to agree good absence management practices. And get the medical staff, the unions and everyone else involved. 

There are other, more radical suggestions. Give people a ‘no claims bonus’ for not being absent. A similar idea is the planned time-off concept where all days off (holidays, sick leave) are bundled together – easier to administrate but tough on the chronically ill, and, of course, illegal in many countries.

The bad news is that absenteeism is a sensitive marker of disengagement which is usually a management issue. But there are causes such as working in declining industries, or staff cut backs that exacerbates the problem. 

It is no accident that so many public sector employers ask about absenteeism when requesting a reference. It’s a big issue for many public sector employers who seem not to manage the issue well.

The bottom line? Somebody in the organisation should have some decent stats on the cost of absenteeism. Relaunch can tighten up the attendance management practices. Reward individuals, managers and departments who are attending well and investigate those where things are not so hot. Don’t get obsessed with presentism because it may not relate to productivity.

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