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Rules of Engagement: Mitigate the Impact of Employee Absences

A company’s productivity can be directly tied to having the right staff on hand to get the job done. Achieving high-quality performance is a result of an employee’s commitment and engagement in their work. With increasing economic pressures and a number of new leave laws, managing an employee through an absence and return to work can be a complex challenge.

Making sure that employee absences are overseen in a consistent, clear and compassionate way can bolster workforce’s productivity. But absence management, as the practice is known, is a tool many managers don’t have in their toolbox.

A Kronos/Mercer study, based on a 2010 survey of HR professionals, found that the full cost of employee absences averages 35 percent of base payroll. And while a large part of that is attributable to vacations and holidays, unplanned absences on a per-employee basis average 5.4 days a year. That represents a significant drain on resources.

Many companies haven’t made absence management a priority because it is difficult to define and document the cost accurately. While it's not difficult to calculate salary and benefits for absent workers and the cost of their replacements, it's harder to quantify the expense of training temporary workers, lost productivity from delayed or postponed work, lower morale of co-workers saddled with extra duties, and increased administrative demands on managers.

Other reasons companies fail to grapple with employee absences are the complexity of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and state family medical leave laws, as well as the variety of categories that work absences fall under, such as family leave, disability leave, military leave, exigency, jury duty, bereavement leave and the like.

Proper absence management requires employee engagement. Clear, defined policies and centralized, sophisticated recordkeeping to eliminate favoritism, lax standards and compliance issues is a good start.

Understanding Employee Needs

Some companies have outsourced absence monitoring and management to avoid administrative headaches. But managers’ responsibilities don’t end with monitoring. As in other oversight functions, skillful absence management requires a strong knowledge of employees and what makes them tick. No caring company wants dysfunctional workers who are too stressed out about health or home issues to perform adequately. Employees who are happy and committed are more likely than others, for example, to schedule doctor appointments for a sick child or parent in a way that accommodates work.

Enlightened employers can influence the attitude and behavior of employees. It means examining the most basic questions: Is a worker’s job really a good fit? Is he or she just hanging on in that position because of the economy? Would that person be happier and more content in a different role?

One reason managers throw up their hands about employee absences is the inability to plan for them. But companies can—and should—have contingencies to smooth the path before workers take time off, keep them connected for the duration of the absence (when applicable) and speed their return to work.

Steps to Take

Here are some steps managers can take:

Before a leave. Alert managers might notice signs of a problem early. Chronic lateness might signal health problems for an employee or an increase in care issues for a dependent. Open communication can lead to a plan that helps all parties. For instance:

If a leave is planned, such as scheduled surgery or the birth of a baby, involve the employee in the process. Schedule a time to talk to the employee about the expected timing of the absence. Seek suggestions for parceling out and prioritizing their work. Discuss whether he or she would be willing to return on a modified work schedule or with appropriate accommodations until recovered fully.

If a leave request comes out of the blue, a manager has to be ready to talk through the situation. Running through expected scenarios before they occur is a smart strategy. Take the example of a computer call center. A worker might complain of wrist pain that could lead to a more serious condition such as carpal-tunnel syndrome. A manager’s initial response could be to offer a more ergonomic keyboard or voice recognition software to avoid the need for a leave.

But there might be more intangible issues that an astute manager might pick up on. Did the employee miss out on a promotion recently? Did he or she come up short on a performance review? It’s possible that these could have a bearing on the employee’s frame of mind or comfort within the workplace. Addressing these soft issues might eliminate the need for time off.

During an absence. A company should provide clear information and compassionate responses to employees who feel compelled to take time off. Once a leave is approved, it’s important to keep the employee engaged. For instance:

After two weeks or more away from the office, many workers can feel disconnected. Send them the company’s newsletter. Keep them informed about changes in their work group. Tell them about any changes in policies or job duties so they don’t feel overwhelmed when they return.

It pays to have strong communication between an employee’s doctors—if the leave is medical in nature—and the company’s HR staff or absence management vendor. In some instances, an employee could begin part-time work that will ease the transition once he or she is ready for a full return.

Returning to work. If an employee has been out for a significant period of time, the work environment might have changed dramatically. Adjusting to new co-workers, new technology or new ways of doing business can be challenging, particularly for someone who might have lingering physical issues or mental fatigue. Managers should help employees make the transition back into the workplace.

Effective absence management can reduce a company’s costs, ease staffing decisions and reduce legal exposure. Whether employers create a system from the ground up or outsource this task to a reliable partner, it requires a commitment to create the kind of workplace in which people who feel valued and respected are empowered to do their best work every day.

Kimberly Mashburn is vice president of strategic partnerships for Prudential Financial’s Group Insurance business.


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