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Success in business - regardless of what industry you operate in and the size and nature of your organisation - always depends on people.

You need a strong, reliable workforce if you want to deliver for your clients, stay one step ahead of your competitors and keep up with the latest trends, challenges and opportunities in your sector.

It's for this reason that managing absenteeism in the workplace should always be a priority for employers. Workers taking unscheduled time off (in other words not including annual leave and holidays) is an unavoidable aspect of running a business, but you need to know when absenteeism is becoming excessive and potentially posing a threat to your productivity.

According to research by the Integrated Benefits Institute, employers in the US alone face annual productivity losses of $530 billion as a result of absenteeism. In the UK, it has been estimated that the total economic cost of workers taking time off will reach £26 billion by 2030.

One way to improve your understanding of this subject and how it's impacting your company is by looking at the main causes of workplace absenteeism. This can help you come up with a dedicated, effective plan for managing it.

physical injury and illness

Physical complaints of some description - commonly in the form of injury or illness - account for a large proportion of workplace absences. This can be a particularly significant issue for employers during the winter months, when coughs, colds and seasonal flu infections become more prevalent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), US employers face costs of $36.4 billion (€27.2 billion) a year as a result of lost work days related to five chronic diseases or risk factors:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity 

The COVID-19 pandemic provided an extreme example of how physical illness can have a devastating impact on workforces. In the EU, the number of people absent from work reached 22.3 million in the first quarter of 2020 (during which the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Europe) - up from 18.5 million in the preceding quarter. In Q2 2020, the figure almost doubled to 40.9 million - a level of absenteeism that created major HR challenges for employers.

Taking active steps to help your employees stay physically fit and healthy will boost your business just as much as it benefits individual workers. Consider strategies such as:

  • Introducing incentives or gamification schemes that encourage employees to walk or cycle to work
  • Making sure people whose jobs are largely sedentary take regular breaks to get up and walk around
  • Promoting health awareness days and events like World No Tobacco Day
  • Providing healthy snacks for free

mental health difficulties

Gone are the days when physical illness was seen as the only legitimate reason for people to take unscheduled time off work. In recent years, there has been increasing recognition of the fact that good mental wellbeing is just as important as physical health for people to not just show up for work, but do their jobs well.

The CDC calls mental health disorders "among the most burdensome health concerns in the United States", with nearly one in five adults reporting some sort of mental illness in 2016.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, almost 15% of people - nearly a sixth of the workforce - experience mental health problems in the workplace. This research also showed that offering better mental health support to employees could save UK businesses up to £8 billion a year.

So what can you as an employer do to acknowledge the importance of this issue and help your employees stay mentally well?

The first step is to start having frank and honest conversations about the subject to reduce stigma and encourage workers to speak to their colleagues or managers when they need help. You can provide valuable help and support to your staff by giving them access to resources like workshops, seminars and online materials around mental health.

Encouraging people to maintain good physical health practices like getting regular exercise and eating well will also contribute to their mental wellbeing.

Any investment you make in mental health resources or provisions for your workforce is likely to be recouped thanks to reduced absenteeism. What's more, presenteeism - when employee productivity declines because people come to work despite being unwell - will also become less common.

bullying and harassment

If bullying and harassment become a problem in your workplace, it's likely that you'll also see higher-than-average rates of absenteeism, since people who are experiencing these issues are likely to take time off because of the resulting stress and anxiety.

Unfortunately, this is an extremely common problem. A Monster.com survey published in 2019 showed that nearly 94% of respondents had experienced bullying at work, compared to 75% who said the same in a 2008 study. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, more than half (51%) of the respondents to the Monster poll said they had been bullied by a boss or manager.

This is clearly an issue that requires a carefully considered but strong response from the HR department. Here are some measures you could think about introducing:

  • Drawing up dedicated policies that state what sort of behaviors are considered bullying or harassment, and how they will be dealt with
  • Specifying channels and methods people can use to report incidents or concerns with complete confidentiality
  • Having a clear investigation procedure, including timescales, that must be followed every time a report or complaint is made
  • Regularly reviewing and collecting feedback on bullying and harassment policies to ensure they're fit for purpose

job hunting

Another common reason for people to take unscheduled time off is if they want to attend an interview or assessment for another job, but don't want to use up their annual leave. Employees could also call in sick to give themselves time to look for other jobs, update their CV or fill in applications.

This is another instance where you need to have clear policies in place so workers know what the company sees as acceptable reasons for absence.

Some employers might be willing to give their staff the flexibility to attend job interviews during normal working hours. While this may raise concerns about enabling a high rate of staff turnover, trusting your people with a certain level of freedom and control over their work could boost their job satisfaction, making them less likely to want to leave in the first place.

If you're struggling with high rates of absenteeism in the workplace and you think employee job hunting is a contributing factor, it could be a sign that you need to rethink your hiring methods and how you engage with your employees.

We have produced a short guide that looks at the subject of workplace absenteeism in detail and highlights ways for you to approach this challenge.