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Improving Absenteeism - 26 May 2015

Unexplained (and non-credible) absences are among the most frustrating aspects of leading people.  When an employee’s genuinely sick, it’s understandable.  But when the legitimacy of the absence is questionable, it’s enough to make you, well, sick.

There are many different factors that play a role in absenteeism.  Prior research indicates there’s a sharp rise when employees work in a job they dislike, or at a workplace that’s toxic, or for a manager who’s incompetent.  Absenteeism is also contagious, so that if an employee’s leader and co-workers are chucking sickies, so too will the employee.

And now the number of contributing factors has been expanded via three new important studies.  All three have been published over the past couple of months in the International Journal of Human Resource Management.

The first study aimed to see whether training was one way through which absenteeism can be reduced.  The researchers analysed a major organisation and what they found was that employees who participated in learning and development initiatives (on any topic) ended up calling in sick 15% less frequently than those who weren’t involved in training.  That’s because of gift-exchange theory, which means employees see training as a reward, and so they reciprocate that generosity with greater loyalty.

The objective of the second study was to assess whether diversity has an impact on absenteeism.  What the researchers discovered was that, yes, diversity programs have a positive influence and that, subsequently, there’s an increase in innovation and performance.  That’s because workplaces in which diversity is neither preached nor practiced are more likely to have employees who “withdraw psychologically and behaviourally”. 

The third study looked at work-hour congruence, which reflects employees who feel they’re working the number of hours they desire.  For some it might be more; for others less.  The researchers found that when work-hour congruence is present, employees take an average of 3.5 fewer sick days each year than their colleagues.  This can be explained by the fact people feel obligated to come to work when their boss is perceived as accommodating.

So here’s what this means for you:

  1. Provide employees with opportunities for learning and development because these will improve their performance and at the same time diminish absenteeism.
  2. Initiate diversity programs (such as the advancement of women, LGBTI awareness, and racial understanding) not only because these make for a fairer workplace but also because they’ll result in fewer absences.
  3. Be as flexible as possible – even if this generates logistical inconveniences in the short term.  Planned changes are always preferable to unplanned ones.
Which just goes to show that, often, absenteeism has more to do with what happens at work than what happens outside of it.



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