The Way I See It... Bosses are to Blame for Soaring Absence

Gerry Baxter of management consultancy Baxter Neumann argues that organisations are as much to blame for sky-high absence as work shy employees.

New efforts to tackle workplace absence has received much press over the last year particularly for organisations that have adopted new ways of managing the issue from staff incentives that woo workers back to the workplace with opportunities to win cars and free holidays.

British Airways, Tesco and the Royal Mail have all hit the headlines over their management of absence levels.

But despite these renewed efforts, latest figures reveal that UK absence has reached a record high.

A recent report by healthcare consultants IHC reveals that 40 million days are lost to absence each year and that UK productivity is lagging behind the US and some parts of Europe as a result.

Employers are constantly searching for affordable and effective solutions to the problem but few find successful answers.

Common mistakes
I have spent many years working with businesses to tackle the absence problem.

It is apparent that the same mistakes are being made – the two most common I have come across are:

  • Absence programmes that fail to gather enough 'meaningful' information about workplace truants, such as the real reason for employees’ non-attendance
  • Too much emphasis being placed on targeting the truant rather than rewarding the consistent attendees within a company

Most organisations have an effective means of tracking the number of sick days taken by an employee but only rarely do they actually record the illness and the possible reasons for it.

It is vital that employers communicate more effectively with their staff to ensure that all available information is recorded. This way, deep-rooted and fundamental problems that could have a long-term detrimental impact on the business can be detected at an early stage.

Reasons for sickness
Recently, the City of York Council hit the headlines with its unconventional approach to the problem of absenteeism. Employees in the council's Adult Services Division now have their sickness notification calls re-routed to a call centre in London.

A team of nurses respond to the calls, asking questions to determine the reasons and severity of the absence.

Tracking the reasons for illness can help management to understand why people are taking time off.

Problems including a poorly designed tool or appliance, a low skilled or unsympathetic manager might be to blame. It could even be a discrimination issue.

Avoid the knee-jerk response
Very few organisations record good attendance or even recognise those employees who take few or no sick days during the year.

Employers should focus their efforts on rewarding those that are already doing a good job.

Recruiting and training new staff is an extremely costly and time consuming exercise and it may be months before the new starter operates as well as the incumbent.

Businesses must also realise that retaining good employees is vital to the overall success of their organisation. It is well worth deploying energy and resources into ensuring that they remain happy, motivated and loyal therefore.

But rather than concentrating on the majority of good employees, many managers continually make the mistake of targeting unsatisfactory individuals. A knee-jerk reaction to dealing with absences is completely ineffective in the long term.

Promote attendance
The golden rule is that if absenteeism is to be reduced, organisations must promote attendance among the majority rather than concentrating on the non-attendance of the minority.

Employers need to address the reasons for high absence rates and this starts with the recruitment process. Emphasis should be placed on the workplace environment and efforts made to ensure that coming to work is seen as the cultural norm for all employees. Cultivating loyal staff who want to go to work is the key to tackling the problem.

Most organisations simply react to absenteeism when is occurs and this is an ineffective solution. If employers are to tackle the problem effectively they must be proactive and look at the root causes. It cold be poor recruitment practices, unfair pay differentials or external social problems. Long-term standards need to be set from the outset.

Managers need to be trained, performance monitored and, crucially, success must be recognised and rewarded.

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