Absenteeism - 19 July 2011
There’s something about death. Whenever we’re reminded of its imminence, we refocus on what’s important in life. The problem, though, is that many of us forget that death is inevitable, and so we aimlessly wander through life without making the most of it.
In medieval times, there was a tradition that sought to combat this trend. Many homes would have a skull placed in random locations throughout the house. There might be a skull on a cabinet, another on a library shelf, or perhaps even one in the loungeroom. And every time people caught a glance at the skull, it reminded them about the importance of life.
Here’s what this has to do with absenteeism in the workplace.
Your absent employees fall into two categories: those who are genuinely ill, and those who are faking it. There’s not much you can do about the former. You can try to prevent illnesses from occurring in the first place by running wellness programs at work, ensuring people take adequate breaks, being mindful of ergonomics, and so on. That’s about it.
But it's the latter category that’s difficult to manage: those you just know aren’t really sick. And it’s with these types of people that the skull analogy works best. Sometimes, managers make it too easy for employees to chuck a sickie, and what’s required at work are various actions that act like a skull sitting on a shelf. The actions remind employees about the impacts of calling in sick.
A few examples…
Speak to a person: Don’t accept text message or voicemails. If someone needs to ring and say they’re not coming in, the phone call should be made to their manager. Otherwise, the manager should call them back and have a conversation about what’s going on. In this case, the inconvenience of the obligatory conversation is the metaphorical skull.
Meet up straight away: Every time an employee returns to work, make it a priority to catch up with them in a meeting room as soon as possible after their starting time. The discussion that ensues is simply one of caring concern, where you make sure they’re feeling better. The potential guilt and repeated awkwardness of those meetings are the metaphorical skulls.
Address it as a group: Run a brainstorming session with your team on the consequences of unexplained absenteeism. Canvass the impacts to workload, service standards, customer satisfaction, stress levels, etc. The idea is to get your employees thinking of the negative effects of not being around. The public airing of this issue is the metaphorical skull.
None of the above should be accusatory, intimidating, or interrogative. They’re just points of enquiry, which if done right, could result in fewer instances of illegitimate absenteeism.
Of course, the above is based on an assumption that the reason people are chucking sickies is because they’re lazy and indifferent. But if the real reason they’re staying at home is because they’ve got a bad manager (one who doesn’t know how to motivate or communicate) and an uninspiring employer (characterised by instability and low morale), then the employee isn’t the problem. The employee is just the skull staring back, representing a bigger issue.
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