In this article
Sickness absence rates rose to their highest in more than 10 years in 2021, with COVID-19 responsible for almost a quarter of days off work, the latest official figures have shown. The sickness absence rate in 2021 was 2.2%, data from the Office for National Statistics revealed, up from 1.8% the previous year and the highest rate seen since 2010.
Nearly 150 million days were lost to sickness or injury overall in 2021: an average of 4.6 days per person.
According to the HSE, stress, depression or anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders accounted for the majority of days lost due to work-related ill health in 2021/22, 17.0 million and 7.3 million respectively.
With figures like these, it’s no wonder that supervisors, managers and business owners across the UK take absenteeism at work very seriously indeed.
Although it’s completely normal for staff to be unexpectedly away from work from time to time, frequent absence can indicate a problem that should be addressed before the problem becomes any worse. In this article, we’ll be discussing what absenteeism is, why it can occur, how it can affect your business and, most importantly, what you can do to reduce its occurrence.
What is absenteeism?
Absenteeism is a frequent or habitual failure to report for work or remain at work as scheduled and can cause significant problems for a business. It shouldn’t be confused with those pre-arranged absences from work such as days off, holidays or jury duty.
An employee’s absenteeism can happen for a range of reasons including illness, injury, bullying or harassment, personal problems, mental health issues, stress and a lack of motivation. We’ll be looking more closely at each of these factors later in this article.
How does absenteeism affect the workplace?
The effects of absenteeism can be seen across the workplace and be experienced by the business as a whole, the employee, their colleagues and also their family members.
Absence from work affects your business
Whilst key members of your team are away from work, productivity levels and customer service standards can drop as your business struggles to cope. Depending on the duration of the absence and the type of business you operate, you may also need to find replacement staff to provide cover, adding an extra financial burden.
Absence from work affects other team members
Many of your other staff members may be forced to carry out two people’s jobs instead of just their own or even forced to do overtime to help compensate for any losses. This affects how they feel about their colleagues and can lead to resentment and tension in the workplace.
Absence from work affects your employee
Needless to say, your employee will also be impacted by their absence. If they’re not at work, they will suffer from a loss of income, more stress, increased pressure when they return and often a backlog of work to clear on their return.
This also affects the employee’s family members as it adds extra pressure, stress and financial strain to home life.
What are the causes of absenteeism?
There are a number of reasons why people can miss work, which include both personal issues and those based in the workplace. These usually fall into one or several of the following categories:
Bullying and harassment in the workplace
Problems with other members of staff in the workplace are one of the most common causes of absence from work. This can include acts of verbal comments that are designed to intimidate, offend, humiliate or degrade a person.
It can be hard to detect unless the employee comes to report the problem, which is why it’s so essential to be aware.
Mental health issues
Mental health issues are becoming an increasing problem in the UK, with more than 50% of all absences now attributed to anxiety, depression and social anxiety.
Mental health issues in the workplace affect employee engagement, productivity and reputation. Mental health is estimated to cost £1,652 per employee per year.
The recent coronavirus outbreak has worsened the problem substantially, leading more employees than ever to call in sick through anxiety related to contracting the virus or worsened mental health problems.
Burnout and stress
Workaholics and those under significant amounts of stress are more likely to get sick, take longer to recover and are also more likely to suffer from mental health issues as a result. They simply can’t face going into work so call in sick or are signed off work by their doctor.
Family / personal reasons
A lack of childcare, taking care of elderly relatives, dentists’ appointments, hospital appointments and other personal responsibilities are also common reasons for absence from work.
This is especially the case for women:
“Nearly 80% of women with children between the ages of six and 13 work outside the home,” says leading UK business publication HR Magazine. “This means that when a child is ill or when normal childcare arrangements fail for any reason, one of the parents may have to call in sick to look after their child.”
When an employee is looking for a new job or attending interviews, they are also likely to be absent from work.
Illness & physical injuries
Absence due to illness or injury can’t be helped and it’s common for employees to need time off work to recover. However, problems arise when the employee in question hasn’t let their employer know, leaving them unable to provide the cover they need to continue business as usual.
When someone is grieving, it’s normal for an employee to be unable to face work. If this happens, it’s important for them to feel understood so they can come to terms with the loss and return to work faster.
Tensions and conflict in the workplace often can’t be helped. But they can increase stress and place an additional burden on employees. If these employees don’t respect the management team or they aren’t respected or given any autonomy, they can also suffer from low morale.
Given all of these possible reasons, it’s important to remember that not all absences are as they may appear.
Employees may call in sick, explaining that they have a stomach bug or the flu, whereas they’re actually struggling with a personal problem, or depression or they simply don’t want to be at work.
That’s why it’s so important to remain proactive and ensure that there are steps in place to help support your team and reduce absenteeism.
How to reduce absenteeism in the workplace
Many of the reasons for absenteeism can’t be helped and it would be unreasonable to expect an employee to attend work.
Having said that, there are many ways we can build a stronger team, improve company morale and proactively reduce absence from work at the same time.
These include the following:
Create a clear attendance policy
Ensure you have a clear attendance policy in place that explains how an employee should report his or her absence, what procedures are in place for unauthorised or excessive absence and how it will be recorded. You should also clearly outline how you will follow up on repeated absences and what will happen.
Many businesses choose to include this as part of an employee contract so it can be discussed and signed. Once this is in place, you should use it as a guideline and adhere to the rules there outlined.
Create a wellbeing programme for employees
When you take care of your employees’ mental and physical health, you won’t just help them to stay fit and healthy. They’ll also feel that the company they work for genuinely cares about their wellbeing, thus fostering greater company loyalty, improving productivity and helping to reduce absenteeism.
Although you will need to make some financial investment for this to be effective, you will end up saving money as a result.
Start by asking your employees what they need support with before you create your wellness plan to help you meet their needs.
Also ensure you’re considering ways to help them with their mental health, as well as their physical health, as this can make a significant difference to your workforce as a whole.
Reduce work-related stress
One of the simplest ways to reduce stress in the workplace is to encourage your staff to take regular breaks, including a proper lunch break. Encourage them to get active throughout the day instead of just sitting at their desks and also give them a degree of flexibility in their working day.
Keep employees motivated
Consider how you can create a more positive working environment that will make your offices or place of work a much more enjoyable place to be.
This could include creating a performance-related reward scheme such as ‘Employee of the Month’, offering incentives for performance, and providing opportunities for extra training and personal development courses. Again, this shows that you care about your team and will keep them motivated.
Offer staff flexible working hours
By offering your employees more flexible working hours where possible, you’ll be supporting working parents and those with other responsibilities so they can continue to bring their best to your business without making sacrifices.
In turn, this can reduce stress, boost morale and show that your business is forward-thinking and can adapt to the needs of your employees.
An excellent supervisor, manager or business owner always makes time to support their staff through any difficulties they are experiencing in their lives.
Whether they are struggling with mental health problems, bereavement or personal problems, you should provide the support they need to get through the difficult times and return to work.
For example, can you give time off in lieu or make working arrangements more flexible? Could you provide counselling for this individual?
Reward good attendance
Provide incentives for good attendance such as earning paid time off, attending special staff events, or even offering additional opportunities for promotion to those with an excellent record.
Provide feedback and appreciation
There’s nothing like feedback and praise to boost morale and encourage your staff members to perform to the best of their abilities. Ensure any criticism you give is delivered in a constructive way and consider how you could provide further incentives to keep your team motivated.
Did you know that?
According to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures:
- The sickness absence rate in the UK in 2021 rose to 2.2%, from a record low of 1.8% in 2020; this is the highest it has been since 2010, when it was also 2.2%.
- An estimated 149.3 million working days were lost because of sickness or injury in the UK in 2021, equivalent to 4.6 days per worker.
- The most common reason for sickness absence in 2021 was “other” conditions, including accidents, poisonings, diabetes and coronavirus (COVID-19). COVID-19 accounted for nearly one in four of all occurrences of sickness absence in 2021.
- The groups with the highest rates of sickness absence in 2021 included women, older workers, those with long-term health conditions, people working part-time and people working in caring, leisure and other service occupations.
What is the difference between absenteeism and presenteeism?
As you’ve learned so far, absenteeism is when a member of staff doesn’t attend work frequently or habitually and/or hasn’t agreed their absence beforehand with their employer.
In contrast, presenteeism refers to when the same employee is physically at work but they are unable to perform to the best of their abilities because of the same kinds of factors like illness, depression, and so on.
Many businesses and working cultures often see this as a positive thing and wear presenteeism as a badge of honour. For example, employees may boast about turning up at work despite being sick with the flu and having a 100°F fever.
However, this can be just as harmful to your business as absenteeism.
Under these circumstances, your employee is almost certain to underperform, make mistakes and take longer to recover from their illness. In the meantime, they can infect other members of staff and further impact the rest of your team.
Often employees believe they will be expected to work despite illness and therefore are likely to struggle with their motivation and overall morale if they feel they are being forced to attend work. This can be extremely stressful for the team member in question and can often lead them to search for alternative employment.
This makes presenteeism almost as bad as absenteeism and should be tackled in much the same way.
As you have learned today, absenteeism at work is a problem that can impact the productivity and service standards of a business and employee wellbeing.
For these reasons, we should never ignore workplace issues such as stress, bullying, mental health problems and a lack of motivation and attempt to continue as normal.
By putting clear attendance rules into place, creating effective employee wellness programmes, working to reduce stress, offering support and encouraging further training and development opportunities, we can take better care of our staff.
When we do this, we don’t just reduce absenteeism in the workplace but we can also benefit from loyal, productive and highly motivated team members.