Absenteeism & Presenteeism in the Workplace

“I can’t come to work today because my boots are muddy,” the construction worker told us.

“Well, you work outside, so that’s to be expected,” we told him.  “Can’t you go to work with mud on your shoes?”  The answer was no.

Another worker told us he wouldn’t be able to go to the jobsite, because he lost the directions.  “Would you like us to give them to you again?” we asked.  “No thank you,” was the reply.

Every employer has their horror story about crazy excuses that employees have given for not showing up for work, or about the employee that is chronically absent.  Worse yet, there are the employees that don’t show up, and don’t even bother to call.

Employee absenteeism is a costly problem for employers.  As our staffing levels have shrunk, we are all trying to cope with fewer hands on deck to do the work.  Every person is essential to get the job done.  When someone is unexpectedly out, the entire organization suffers more than ever.

Every business owner, manager, human resource professional and supervisor knows that there are many laws in place that require companies to provide leave for employees under certain circumstances.  In some cases, these laws apply to employers of varying sizes, and in some cases, they apply to all employers.  None of us want to violate those laws.  The question is, how can we stay within the guidelines and intent of those laws, and minimize the unplanned or unnecessary leave taken by our employees?

Companies must start with a solid attendance policy in their employee handbook, which details the company’s expectations and rights, and the employees’ responsibilities.  The policy should state:

  • when an employee should call in to report their absence
  • who to report it to
  • how to report it
  • when a doctor’s statement is required to return to work

Surveys that have been performed reveal that employee absenteeism is often for reasons unrelated to illness.

For instance, employees take time off to take care of sick family members, to attend to personal business, to attend school functions, and for “mental health days”.

For this reason, many companies have incorporated Work/Life Programs into their benefit plans, which help to mitigate the need for an employee to unexpectedly pretend to be ill when they need to take care of personal business.

For instance, a PTO (Paid Time Off) plan is a bank of hours that replaces sick and vacation time with personal time off.  Employees use the time as they choose, eliminating the need to segregate the hours into sick and vacation days.  Healthy employees have the advantage of extra vacation days during the year.  Most employers find that the number of unexpected days off is diminished with a PTO plan.

Another variation of PTO plans is a Buy-Back Plan for sick days in which an employer will buy-back in cash or with vacation hours all or a portion of an employee’s unused sick days.  Employees who have the “use it or lose it” mentality for sick days become incentivized to get the buy-back bonus.

Some employers offer a Well Day Bonus for employees who do not use a sick day during a certain period of time, such as a six month period.  The Well Day essentially gives employees an additional vacation day to be used during the next six month period of time.

These programs, which recognize and reward employees with excellent attendance, help to create an atmosphere that encourage others in their attendance.

As our workplaces become leaner, and we place a greater emphasis on controlling absenteeism, we run the risk of presenteeism becoming a greater problem in our workplace.

Presenteeism is the problem we have when a sick employee comes to work ill.  There are many reasons that employees do this.  Our employees may feel that they have too much work to do to stay home, or that they will be in trouble if they miss a day of work.  In this economy, they may feel concerned for the well being of the company and feel the need to come to work every day to help.  Or they may want to get their Well Day Bonus, so they come to work sick in order to qualify for it.

When someone comes to work sick, they expose everyone else to their illness, which often results in a bigger disruption in the company’s productivity overall as others eventually fall ill.  Sick employees are not able to work at their capacity, and are usually better off to stay home for a day or so to get well, than work at a diminished rate for several days.

Many companies today offer reimbursement for flu shots in order to help their employees through the flu season, and to help to avoid the effects of presenteeism.  Simple things, like bottles of hand sanitizers throughout the office can lower the risks, especially when the staff is exposed to the public.

All Work/Life Balance Programs have employer flexibility as their cornerstone.  Allowing an employee the option of leaving early to go to the school play means they don’t have to call in sick for the entire day.  Creating a job share situation for an employee with an elderly parent they are caring for means that their attendance will be reliable and they will have another person to back them up when something unexpected happens.

By adopting thoughtful measures, there’s a very good chance you can cut down on absenteeism in your workplace.  Although, admittedly, in a perverse way, sometimes those excuse-calls are pretty entertaining.  We’ve all heard some wild excuses from employees who couldn’t come to work.  Sometimes I hope for a good excuse when the phone rings, and I’m disappointed when the employee offers nothing better than a fake cough and a raspy voice.

Some of the more memorable excuses we’ve heard over the years include a call we received one morning from a fellow who told us he couldn’t go to work that day because he’d accidentally shot himself through the throat with an arrow.  We thought that was a pretty good excuse.  Then there was the woman who didn’t show up for work for several days.  When we finally reached her, she said, “I’ve been lost in Belfair for three days and there were no phones available.”  We gave her points for creativity on that one, although not an offer to return to work.

So what good excuses have you heard?  Our company has created a mug emblazoned with a quote by Sam Ewing, “Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all.”  Send us an email with the kookiest excuse you’ve ever been fed and and we’ll bring you a mug.

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