An employee missing work for a day shouldn't scupper your business.
If they're off for another day, you can probably still work around them.
But what about those employees who take three, four or five days off ill on a regular basis? What about employees who rarely complete a fortnight at work without calling in sick?
Employee attendance can often seem out of your control. There are so many different reasons for absence, as well as an employee's individual circumstances to consider.
As an employer, you only have limited influence on employees - you can't stop them from drinking or dictate their diet!
However, if you feel you have a real attendance problem at your business, there are usually work-related reasons behind it - and there are plenty of ways you can try to tackle them.
Here are a few of them. Click the links to jump through the article.
How to improve employee attendance:
- Track leave
- Set expectations
- Boost morale and engagement
- Reduce sick leave
- Speak to employees
- Train supervisors
Hunches may take you far in other aspects of business, but relying on them as a manager isn't a smart move.
Above all, employees want to be treated fairly. If a manager has no problem with one employee taking a week off sick, they shouldn't have an issue with another employee having a similar period of absence.
Of course, context must be taken into account - treating employees fairly doesn't necessarily mean equal treatment.
To maintain fairness and avoid legal issues down the line, track employee absences. You can use a basic spreadsheet, HR software - or RotaCloud!
In particular, we recommend using a measure such as the Bradford Factor to better communicate the impact employee absences have on the business.
With accurate data, you can backup or disprove your hunches.
Tracking absences is unlikely in itself to improve attendance (particularly in the long term), but is often a great starting point when combined with other changes and methods.
Your workplace culture will determine the extent to which absences are 'accepted'. That sentence might sound a little strange - after all, no manager wants their staff to be absent - but companies undoubtedly have different expectations around employee attendance.
Take Company A and Company B (imaginative, I know).
Company A is a fast-growing tech startup in a competitive field, backed by huge investments. Employees, managers, and entire departments are under constant pressure to meet (and exceed) targets.
During the hiring process, staff understood that they'd be working in a high-pressure environment and expect to work long days (or even at the weekend) when necessary. Taking absences for anything other than family emergencies and serious illnesses is looked down upon not just by managers, but employees too. No-one wants to let their team down.
Company B, on the other hand, is a bustling local restaurant based at a single location. Although absences are a hassle to manage, everyone involved knows that it's too much of a risk to have sick staff preparing and serving food to guests.
Company B asks employees to call in sick with as much notice as possible so that cover can be arranged, and actively reminds employees that they should not be serving guests while ill.
There isn't a right or wrong approach here - what's important is that employees at Company A understand that they are expected to take few absences, while workers at Company B know that they need to call in sick ASAP if they are ill.
In these examples, expectations are created through the company culture and management, but you could also provide more concrete expectations. Do this through an employee handbook or another document.
Set out expectations for attendance, including what might count as 'excessive absenteeism'. It's also wise to outline your disciplinary process so that employees understand the consequences of failing to meet expectations.
All that absence data comes in handy here.
Boost Morale and Employee Engagement
The above two steps require only minor changes at your business. It'll take significantly more work to boost employee morale.
Don't avoid making changes here, however, as ignoring dwindling morale can be hugely damaging. Low morale causes higher absenteeism. Higher absenteeism lowers morale. You're left with a vicious circle.
Taking positive action to prevent this dilemma from occurring needn't be costly. Improving morale and engagement can start with a few small changes for most businesses, such as:
- Trust your employees. Show you respect them and that you trust them with increased responsibility.
- Recognise achievements. Go out of your way to show appreciation when an employee performs exceptionally. Thank employees at the end of the day if they've done particularly well.
- Listen to employees more. Increasingly, employees want their managers (and senior managers) to listen to their ideas, suggestions and complaints. By showing even entry level employees that their feedback can make a real difference, you're bound to boost morale.
- Move towards a more open office culture. Dispel the 'us vs. them' vibe and be more inclusive.
Reduce Sick Leave
If you've raised an eyebrow at this subheading, give us a chance to explain!
We're not suggesting you should force employees to come to work while sick. Instead, we think employers can help to prevent some health problems and illnesses from occurring in the first place - or at least lessen their impact.
For example, employers could invest in new, ergonomic office furniture to reduce back pain and other associated conditions. Alternatively, offices could provide free fruit, implement cycle-to-work schemes, or take steps to improve workplace hygiene.
Any of these steps will indirectly cut sick leave. Of course, the difficult part is figuring out whether the investment in these schemes and staff freebies is worth it.
To give these initiatives the best chance of succeeding, discuss your plans with staff and find out which options they think will be most effective.
There's no point organising free fruit for the office if everyone would rather eat snacks out of the vending machine.
An alternative approach is to offer staff unpaid leave. This can be particularly useful if an employee is dealing with stress or other mental health problems and just needs some time out. By allowing employees unpaid leave early on, it reduces the chance of longer periods of absence in the future.
Although you will have to plan around the disruption of an employee taking unpaid leave (with relatively short notice), you'll save in the long term.
When the frequency of employee absences starts to become a problem, a supervisor sits down with them for a talk about it. The employee might be given the chance to explain the situation before the supervisor asks for improvement and warns of disciplinary measures.
These meetings tend to achieve very little, with the stress of sanctions only adding to an employee's problems. Instead, communication needs to take place during (and after) every period of absence.
Supervisors should be empathetic: step into the employee's shoes and make efforts to understand their situation. A staff member may be reluctant to share details about certain health issues or family illnesses, so don't pry.
Instead, suggest ways you can adjust their working hours and workload and point them towards support resources. Check up on the employee after a couple of days to see how they're faring and make changes if required.
If an employee is absent for a long period of time (say, more than two consecutive weeks) be sure to hold a return to work interview. Use this interview to:
- Check the employee is well enough to work
- Update them on company news, announcements, and new hires
- Explain who's been covering their workload
- Discuss and prioritise various tasks that need to be completed
- Talk about how their absence was managed and steps that will be taken if similar circumstances occur again
This process will significantly help an employee with the transition back to work.
By communicating with employees through their illness (or personal issue) and being flexible, you earn an employee's long-term goodwill - increasing the chance of them remaining a productive employee for months and years to come.
Initiatives and absence policies won't do any good unless your supervisors are aware of them, support them, and adopt them.
Therefore, you need to consider training your supervisors in all things attendance.
Start with the basics:
- Do supervisors know how to log attendance?
- Are they familiar with the attendance and absence policies?
- Do they know how and when to apply disciplinary procedures?
Although you probably covered all this during onboarding, you'd be surprised at how many supervisors need a reminder!
Depending on the time and resources you have available, you could also train supervisors in more specific areas of attendance management, such as how to sensitively manage a grieving employee or recognise signs of burnout and stress.
Before you can hope to tackle an absence problem at your business, you must try to learn the root cause. Data is invaluable - we recommend using a time and attendance system to keep track of hours and leave.
We also reckon it's worth trying out a few office initiatives to try to cut down on the length and frequency of illnesses and injuries picked up in the workplace. Not all your efforts will be successful, but by gathering feedback from your staff you'll stand a better chance at finding something that works for your business.
Training and communication are the final two steps you need to get right - and they're perhaps the most important of all.
Overall, there's only so much you can do to tackle attendance issues - you're never going to cure the common cold or resolve your employees' family problems - but if you think your absence rates are higher than those of the average workplace, there are plenty of ways to start making improvements.