Absenteeism May Be Sign of a Bigger Problem

Absenteeism is a problem that plagues many businesses. Employees frequently taking days off or calling in sick can signify that something bigger is going on. There are many reasons for absenteeism, but some of the most common are poor work-life balance, stress, bullying, poor management, and workplace burnout. If you're noticing high levels of absenteeism in your workplace, it's important to investigate and find out why this is happening. Otherwise, you could be setting yourself up for bigger problems down the road.

Absenteeism can cost businesses a lot of money in lost productivity, but it can also be a sign of bigger issues. If employees are frequently absent, it could be a sign that they're unhappy with their job or experiencing personal problems. Absenteeism can also be a symptom of workplace burnout. When employees are overworked and stressed, they're more likely to get sick or take time off.

Addressing Absenteeism

If you notice absenteeism becoming a problem in your workplace, sit down with your employees and see what's going on. There might be some simple solutions that can help improve the situation. For example, if you think stress might be the issue, you could look into specific ways of reducing stress in the workplace. Whatever the cause, it's important to address absenteeism head-on to avoid bigger problems down the road. Here is a further look at some of the most common reasons for employee absenteeism.

Workplace Bullying

Perhaps a less obvious reason for high absenteeism rates is workplace bullying. In addition to multiple unscheduled absences, bullying leads to low workplace morale and can harm the entire team. There are signs to look for when it comes to bullying, like an employee with a normally good attendance record who suddenly starts to miss work. Of course, personal issues arise all the time, and there are plenty of valid reasons for a sudden higher rate of absenteeism (such as during cold and flu season, since you don't want sick employees coming to work.) However, increased unexcused absences should send up a red flag for a normally present employee.

Here are some signs that an employee may be being bullied by other employees or even a manager or supervisor.

  • Suddenly withdrawing and spending more time by themselves.
  • Having lunch alone or taking breaks at their desk or workspace, rather than in a shared space like a break room.
  • An employee who is suddenly sick often takes multiple sick days or complains of feeling unwell once they get to work. Stress from bullying can manifest physically, leading a normally productive hourly worker to miss work often.
  • Another employee, manager, or supervisor taking credit for someone else's work.
  • A normally motivated, engaged employee suddenly shows reduced productivity and low morale.
  • Yelling or making inappropriate or rude comments about another employee.
  • An employee normally searching for opportunities for overtime pay is no longer interested and goes home as soon as possible.

Be Aware of Bullying Signs

While bullying is typically a topic covered by HR professionals, it's important for everyone to be aware of some of the signs of bullying. Encourage employees to say something to a trusted boss or supervisor if they hear or see something. This is, of course, not an exhaustive list. Consider implementing harassment prevention training to empower employees to say something if they are being bullied and reinforce your company's position on having a respectful workplace. Things like harassment and discrimination have no place in positive workplace culture, and the indirect costs associated with their impact can be even more signification than those of absenteeism rates. A hostile work environment can lead to low employee morale, reduced productivity, and poor quality customer service. It can lead to high turnover, and many of your formerly productive and happy employees suddenly job hunting.

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Work-Life Balance or Lack Thereof

A common reason for unscheduled absenteeism is that your employees don't feel they have a proper sense of work-life balance. They may feel overly stressed or spend too much time in the office (or on the clock, if they are remote) and not enough time doing things they enjoy. One way to reduce absenteeism that is caused by an insufficient work-life balance is to ask for feedback from your employees to gauge your workplace morale and engagement levels. For example, if you notice that absenteeism is highest on Mondays, you could consider giving employees the option to work from home on Mondays. A flexible working schedule can have a major impact on reducing absenteeism. Absent employees can ultimately cost businesses an immense amount of money annually. Research shows that the annual costs of unscheduled absenteeism are roughly $3,600 per year for each hourly worker and $2,660 annually for salaried employees.

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Addressing Mental Health Can Help Employee Absenteeism

Addressing employee mental health is an important way to reduce absenteeism and improve poor morale and overall employee engagement. If you notice an employee that has habitual absences and continues to miss work, it's time to have a conversation to see if things are okay. Mental health issues are not always obvious, and other employees and even senior leadership may not be able to tell that someone is struggling. Work can be stressful for a lot of people, but according to 2021 research gathered by Deloitte, 46% of Gen Z employees and 41% of millennials surveyed said they felt "stressed all or most of the time." Considering that millennials make up the majority of the job force, a staggering number of individuals are constantly stressed. Of those surveyed, 33% of millennials and 35% of Gen Zers said that their physical/mental health was the cause of their stress.

There's a lot that you can do to help improve the mental wellness and overall well-being of employees. Step one is to make sure you're not shying away from talking about it. Help everyone to reduce the stigma by using positive language when addressing employee health concerns.

Supporting Employee Mental Health

Do you offer paid sick leave? Are your employees using all their sick days? Do they feel a lot of workplace stress in their personal lives? Employee absenteeism in your organization could be curbed by focusing on mental wellness and letting your teams know that they aren't alone, and they can take paid sick days when there are days that they are feeling unwell or not functioning at their best. This is a great way to boost employee morale and cut down on excessive absences. Most corporate wellness programs include ways to be more healthy, promote physical activity, and reduce stress, all of which can help reduce absenteeism in the workplace.

Poor Management

One of the most commonly reported reasons for employee absenteeism is due to poor management. We've written at length about some of the signs of a bad manager, like a lack of organizational skills, bad time management, or taking credit for something they didn't do. Bad managing can lead to inadequately trained employees, poor quality customer service, missed deadlines, and a whole host of other indirect costs.

The reasons for absenteeism vary, but a lack of trust in your leadership team certainly can lead to lost productivity and a higher than average number of absent employees. Micromanaging is another sign of poor management, and recent studies show that 82% of employees would consider leaving their company because of a bad manager. Considering the total annual costs related to replacing employees, coupled with the costs of absenteeism in the workplace, HR professionals would be wise to implement a leadership training that provides your leaders with the training to do their jobs well and the soft skills to connect with employees at all levels.

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Low Employee Engagement

If you're looking to reduce absenteeism in the workplace, you simply cannot overlook the importance of a motivated, engaged workforce. In fact, Gallup research shows that highly engaged businesses showed a 41% reduction in absenteeism and a 17% increase in productivity. When you consider those statistics, you can't afford to ignore any implication of low employee engagement, or worse, actively disengaged employee(s). Following are some important signs to look out for and a clear indication that you have an engagement problem.

  • Lack of communication with management.
  • Quality of work is steadily or rapidly declining.
  • The employee is frequently making poor excuses for subpar performance.
  • Showing signs of low morale, i.e., lost productivity and no interest in career growth.
  • Other employees or management have overheard discussions of job hunting.
  • Frequently complaining or speaking negatively about others at work.

Final Thoughts on Overcoming Absenteeism

Overall, there are many things that can contribute to absenteeism in the workplace, and it's essential that your leaders know what their role is within the organization. First and foremost, knowing the factors that lead to frequently absent employees and addressing them head-on is critical to making a positive impact. Additionally, your managers and supervisors should feel confident addressing workplace bullying and need to be able to recognize the signs and know how to stop bullying in its tracks. If you don't think that your workplace leadership has the skills required to connect with employees and help you build a reputation as an employer of choice, look no further. We're here to help, and you're just a click away from moving your organization forward.

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.