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5 Ways to Manage Employee Absences

The key is knowing not just when people are missing work, but why

​Employee absences are a normal part of work life. They can even be healthy when it means people are taking time off to rest and recover. But unexcused or frequent absences can become problematic.

Unaddressed absenteeism can “take its toll on a company and its employees,” says Nicole Roberts, SHRM-CP,  president of People Solutions Group in Springboro, Ohio. “Others have to take on the extra work, and with teams running as lean as they already are, it can result in missed deadlines and missed incentive targets.”

The key is knowing not just when people are missing work, but why. If the issue is addressed, it can potentially be fixed.

“In my experience, most unexcused absences or excessive absences are committed by people who don’t feel valued by the organization or manager, have a life where work is a competing priority, are dealing with a life crisis, or have physical or mental health concerns that they don’t feel comfortable disclosing at work,” says Tashia Mallette, SHRM-SCP, founder and chief people officer of HR ­Exchange Group in Los Angeles.

Reducing absenteeism might be as simple as tweaking employees’ schedules, investing in more training or making sure managers regularly meet with their direct reports, Mallette says. 

Here are five ways that HR professionals can track, manage and improve absenteeism in the workplace.

Study the Data

Figure out the absentee rate of an individual employee or the whole company and search for troublesome patterns. One common absenteeism rate formula is: Divide the number of absences by the number of workdays in a set period and multiply by 100 to get a percentage. For example, if an employee misses 2 out of 30 scheduled workdays, the formula would look like this: 2/30 x 100, for an absentee rate of 6.7 percent.

The average yearly absentee rate in the U.S. is 3.6 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But rates vary widely by industry, so compare numbers against the same or similar industries or teams.

At small companies, HR professionals can track absences with a simple spreadsheet if more sophisticated software isn’t in the budget. 

But Tina-Marie Wohlfield, SHRM-SCP, founder and chief people strategist for HR consulting and management company TIMAWO in Fraser, Mich., uses the time, attendance and payroll functions in her human resources information system to mark absences. Each month, she pulls data to look at trends such as: 

  • How much leave time has each employee used, compared to what they’ve accumulated?
  • Do absences occur on the same days of the week or at the same times of the year?
  • How many absences are unscheduled versus scheduled?

This helps Wohlfield spot patterns such as employees taking too much or not enough time off and determine whether the company is understaffed at certain times of the year.

“Monitoring absenteeism allows organizations to identify emerging issues such as burnout, engagement, training opportunities and workforce distribution,” Wohlfield says.

Discover the Reasons

When an employee has an unexcused absence or arrives to work late for a couple of days, don’t assume the worst. The worker’s manager should meet with them to find out why their attendance has changed and to explain how absences impact the team and the business overall. The manager should ask how the individual’s attendance can be improved and set expectations for future behavior, Roberts says.

Consider reasonable accommodations, such as changing work schedules, subsidizing commuter benefits or guiding workers toward an employee assistance program for help with personal issues.

Roberts recalls a former employee who started coming into work late two days a week. By talking with the employee, she learned that the individual had recently gained custody of a school-age child, and those days coincided with late starts at the child’s school. 

Rather than discipline the employee, “we adjusted the employee’s start time for after the bus picked up the child, and there were no further issues,” Roberts says. “It removed the anxiety about the unexpected ­absences for all sides.”

Be Proactive

Watch for problems that can lead to absenteeism. Some of the top reasons that people miss work include workplace harassment, burnout and stress, child care challenges, lack of engagement, and illness and injury. A good way to uncover these root causes is to regularly seek feedback from employees.

Short surveys can be sent weekly, monthly or quarterly to find out how employees feel about topics such as paid-time-off (PTO) policies, workload, safety practices and manager effectiveness. 

As a solo HR practitioner with a former employer, Roberts surveyed hourly employees to find out what was keeping them from coming to work. Workers’ responses revealed dissatisfaction among third-shift employees who felt overworked and stressed due to the high number of emergency calls during their shift. To address the problem, company leaders increased staffing and pay for the third shift.

Be Flexible

Rigid or unrealistic attendance policies, such as points-based systems that don’t consider extenuating circumstances, set leaders up for failure, Roberts says. Employees want to be treated fairly, she says. When they have more autonomy over their work locations or schedules, they have a greater sense of control and they’re more satisfied with work, according to research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 

But offering remote or hybrid work isn’t the only solution. It’s possible to extend job flexibility to onsite shift workers, too. For example, bundling sick days and vacation days together gives employees more control over how they use their PTO. 

“When someone’s burned out, they’re less likely to care about their absences from work,” says Abby Ochs, CEO and founder of Gro Consulting, a fully remote company with 31 employees. 

Flexibility also can be created by staggering the start and end times for shifts or offering a condensed, four-day workweek. Give workers a break by closing worksites early before holiday weekends or during slower production periods, Ochs says. 

“Blue-collar workers in particular are often overworked due to staffing shortages as well as work that’s very emotionally or physically intense,” she says. “Ensuring that they have the rest and mental health resources they need is critical to success.”

Recognize Employees’ Efforts

Don’t underestimate the power of a well-placed thank you. Companies that recognize and appreciate their workers’ efforts have higher employee engagement, productivity and performance, according to a recent Deloitte study.

Recognition can be simple—such as buying an employee lunch for their birthday or giving them a gift to mark a work anniversary. 

Roberts also suggests financial rewards, such as paying a quarterly attendance bonus.

Helping employees realize their purpose is also key. When working at an organization with low ­employee engagement, Roberts says she brought in top executives to welcome new hires and share how their individual roles would help the company achieve its goals. 

The organization also started mentorship and career path programs to give employees a sense of their futures at the company.

As a result, Roberts says, “people no longer felt like they were just a number in a distributed worksite.”  

Jennifer Thomas is a ­freelance writer based in Chicago. Image by Chadchai Krisadapong/iStock.


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