Employees average almost nine days of unscheduled absences from work each year, and strategies to manage absenteeism appear to have little impact.
A survey of 533 HR practitioners by the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) found that organisations seemed resigned to the problem continuing.
While about two-thirds thought (predictably) that absenteeism was too high, almost 60 per cent cited employee disengagement as the main cause of it and about 40 per cent were not investigating the underlying causes.
The survey is the latest in AHRI’s HR Pulse series.
Absence rates and trends
Only 13 per cent reported a reduction in absenteeism over the past year, whereas more than 40 per cent believed that unscheduled absences had increased and 46 per cent reported no change.
The average absentee rate per employee was 8.8 days per year – only slightly less than the 10 days paid sick leave per year that most employees are entitled to. The private sector rate was 7.4 days versus 9.8 days for the not-for-profit sector and 10.8 days for the public sector.
Causes of absenteeism
Almost two-thirds of respondents believed their workplace absence rates were too high and 80 per cent believed they could be reduced. About 60 per cent said unscheduled absences caused low morale.
The main reasons for unscheduled absenteeism (aside from genuine illness) were:
- low levels of employee engagement
- a culture of sick leave entitlement
- poor leadership style and management practice.
Three-quarters of organisations recorded unscheduled absences. Private sector employers were less likely to regard the rate as too high (56 per cent) than those in the other sectors (more than 70%).
About 40 per cent of private sector employers said their current rate was “about right” versus about one-quarter in the other sectors. Public sector employers were about twice as likely to regard the rate as “far too high” (about one-third).
Main reasons for short-term absences
The two most common reasons given by employees were minor illnesses such as colds, headaches and stomach upsets (93 per cent) and family/carer’s responsibilities (76 per cent).
Recurring conditions such as asthma and allergies, stress and injuries/illnesses unrelated to work were mentioned by about 30 per cent and mental ill health by 21 per cent. Alcohol/drug-related conditions were only mentioned by five per cent.
The reasons for long-term absences were a broader list, the most frequent being acute medical conditions (such as heart attack, stroke, cancer), injuries/illnesses unrelated to work and family/carer’s responsibilities. Mental ill health was mentioned by 32 per cent and stress by 26 per cent.
How serious is the problem?
Respondents were evenly divided about the gravity of taking “sickies”. Almost half (47 per cent) said it was a moderate or serious problem and 53 per cent said it was either minor or not a problem.
The main consequences for workplaces were reduced productivity (in about 80 per cent of cases), low morale of staff filling in for absent employees (60 per cent), and time losses due to managing absenteeism, reallocating work, finding replacement staff etc (48 per cent). Only three per cent reported no negative effects.
However, only about 20 per cent of employers measure the cost of absences, even though 80 per cent believed their rates could be reduced.
About half of employers analysed absenteeism data on a regular basis and 22 per cent studied data from employee surveys. Almost 40 per cent did not analyse underlying causes of absence at all.
The following causal factors were mentioned by more than half the respondents:
- low levels of employee engagement
- culture of sick leave entitlement
- high workload or work-related stress
- poor leadership style and management practices
For all causes, the rates were about 10 per cent higher in the public sector.
Strategies for managing absences
There was a mismatch between the management strategies most used and those considered most effective.
The most used were (in order of frequency):
- requesting medical evidence
- referral to Employee Assistance Programs
- provision of flexible work options
- disciplinary procedures for unexplained/unacceptable rates of absence
- health/wellbeing initiatives and
- clear communication of attendance expectations.
About 30 per cent said they relied on manager training, return-to-work interviews and triggers for further investigation.
Although 73 per cent requested medical evidence, only 33 per cent believed it was an effective management tool. Flexible work options were voted the most effective option by 42 per cent of respondents, followed by clear communication of attendance expectations, return-to-work interviews, manager training and disciplinary procedures (each between 23 per cent and 29 per cent).
About 40 per cent intended to increase their range of health and wellbeing initiatives over the next year.
Presenteeism has lesser impact
The survey also covered views about presenteeism at work, but in general found it had a much lesser impact than absenteeism. About two-thirds said the level had not changed over the past year, but about 30 per cent claimed it had become worse. Only 20 per cent regarded presenteeism as a moderate or serious problem.
Main contributing factors to it were (in order):
- high workload/work-related stress
- illness not serious enough to take time off
- no-one to cover job while absent
- pressure from management/peers to stay at work.
The most common strategies for managing presenteeism were:
- encouraging unwell employees to recover and sending sick ones home
- providing flexible work options
- Employee Assistance Programs
Only eight per cent provided extra days of leave.