Absenteeism is a chronic problem in the UK as well as America, says Susanna Quirke, at Inspiring Interns, so what can companies do to stop the epidemic in its tracks?

Absenteeism is the wilful failure to turn up to work on the part of an employee. It is distinct from sick days – classed as involuntary – and unrelated to annual leave. It’s a chronic problem in the UK as well as America, where absenteeism costs businesses an estimated $2,650 per salaried employee every year.

Contrary to many people’s beliefs, absenteeism is not typically a symptom of laziness. People who fake illness or take unannounced days off tend to be experiencing one of three difficulties: time issues, mental health problems or burnout. All are exacerbated by workplaces and, as a result, all can be alleviated by use of intelligent strategies.

So what can companies do to stop the epidemic in its tracks? The below strategies will get you well on the way to effective attendance management.

Have a chat

It may sound counter-intuitive, but employees prefer formalised procedure over surprise managerial intervention. When a worker knows what reaction to expect from his employer, he is more likely to comply willingly with those terms and conditions.

Instituting a formalised process to address employee absence can not only encourage cooperation between managers and workers but actually help you spot problems as they are happening. Take the advice of Stefani Yorges, writing for The Balance:

“The training of supervisors in how to best manage absenteeism should include instruction on how to conduct effective and fair return-to-work interviews. Recent national surveys indicate that these interviews are regarded as one of the most effective tools for managing short-term absenteeism.”

Ask absent employees to have a quick chat with their manager upon return to work. The policy will promote honesty as well as encourage employees to openly express concerns to their superiors – a win-win.

Relax the reins

When fighting the causes of unexplained absence, it can be tempting to crack down on suspected perpetrators. But in many cases, the best policy is not to tighten the reins but to relax them.

A lot of absenteeism occurs due to causes that which, for one reason or another, the employee feels unable to express publicly. One of the big ones is psychological. When one in five employees suffers from some form of mental health issue, it should come as no surprise to companies that the greatest threat to employee commitment is inside their workers’ heads. When you’re suffering from grief, depression, anxiety, panic attacks or low self esteem and can’t go into work, it can be hard to tell an employer what’s really going on with you.

The solution? Don’t force your employees to lie to you. Offer them duvet days – that is, occasional days of absence which can be taken without prior warning or explanation to the company. If you give your workers a way to take the recuperative time they need legitimately, then they will be far more likely to play by the rules the rest of the time.

Flexible working

An extension of the duvet day concept, flexible working is the number one way to combat absenteeism in the workplace. By granting employees greater control over their own hours, starts and finishes, you boost motivation, improving retention and reducing turnover. In fact, in polls of Millennials and other modern workers, flexible work options often rank above higher pay in their priorities.

Flexible work policies can also work wonders in the case of illness. Often, sickness might only make travelling into the office tricky. In these cases, allowing an employee to work from home will not only gain you a day of work in place of sick leave, but relieve any guilt or stress on the worker’s part.

Finally, flexible working can be a lifesaver for employees with families. Besides paying for subsidised childcare and support groups, allowing parents to work flexibly around their children’s schedules. If a nine-year-old gets the flu and your worker has to stay home to care for them, it helps them immensely if they are allowed to work from their sofa while doing so.

Minimise burnout

Another major cause behind absenteeism is so-called ‘burnout’. Burnout occurs when an employee is overworked, undermotivated and frustrated with his/her job. It makes workers reluctant to trudge into the office and, in some cases, can contribute towards more serious mental health issues.

There are simple things you can do to minimise the effects of burnout in your company. Make roles clear, so that nobody feels confused or frustrated with their workload. Delegate tasks fairly. Enable your workers to make their own decisions with regard to the company, even if it’s something as simple as what music to play in the office. By contributing to the running of the business, employees are made to feel more powerful and invested in its success.

Reward good performance. Motivate. Keep reasonable work hours. Ensure your managers are fair at all times. Encourage lunch and coffee breaks. Stock your kitchen with food. Shake up the company schedule. Institute surprise treats and events.

Finally, try to minimise the commitment you ask from employees outside work hours. Never request workers check emails on weekends or evenings; not only are you not paying them for this time, but unclear delineations between work and leisure hours are a recipe for stress. Maybe the French have it right after all.

Tighten up on targets

Ever heard the term ‘target-focused’? Many employers think that they should be paying workers for hours spent at a desk. In fact, they might do well to think of employment as buying results over time.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but judging employees purely by their output and not by some arbitrary number of hours spent in the office will both ensure their happiness and reduce absenteeism. Sure, some workers skip work because they’re just lazy. But most do it because they can’t face another eight useless hours sat at a desk, accomplishing less than they could at home.

Set concrete targets for each of your employees. So long as the worker meets those numbers, allow them to organise their time and hours as they wish; after all, they’re delivering what you pay for. If they don’t meet their targets, have a serious think as to whether you want that employee at your company – and yes, it is that easy.

It may sound counter-intuitive that placing less stress on working hours will reduce slacking, but think of it from your employee’s point of view. If skipping work means missing targets, and missing targets means consequences, then they are hardly likely to do so unless forced.

So next time you suspect an employee of absenteeism, ask yourself: what can you do to fix the situation? You have plenty of weapons in your arsenal. Use them.

By Susanna Quirke, graduate jobs writer for Inspiring Interns

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