Employee absenteeism costs UK employers billions of pounds each year in lost working days, temporary replacement staff and sick pay.
In this guide, we look at strategies and approaches employers can take to reduce absenteeism due to illness, by safeguarding workforce wellbeing and creating a positive and productive workplace culture.
A proactive approach to reducing absenteeism
Employers that take a proactive approach to, and invest in, the health and wellbeing of their employees can expect to see financial savings through a reduction in unauthorised absences, and in repeated and prolonged periods of sick leave through either work-related stress or workplace avoidance.
You should also expect to see improvements in overall productivity and performance within the workplace. In particular, a happy and healthy workforce will not only help to reduce absenteeism, but is also likely to reduce the problem of presenteeism – where an employee attends work but in a wholly unfocused and disengaged way that limits how they perform.
A positive working environment in which an employee feels valued and appreciated is much more likely to lead improved employee engagement, and can be one of the most effective ways of reducing the problems of both presenteeism and absenteeism.
What are the causes of employee absenteeism?
When looking at how to reduce absenteeism, it is helpful for employers and management to understand the causes of staff absences, including the reasons for unusually high rates of absenteeism in your workplace.
The most common cause of absenteeism is illness, namely, where an employee is suffering from a genuine medical condition that means they are physically or mentally unfit for work. Needless to say, in the majority of these cases, this will be entirely outside your control and will usually only relate to a limited number of individuals at any given time.
In other cases, however, sickness-related absence may be caused or contributed to by work-related stress arising from an overload of pressures and the demands placed on an individual on a day-to-day basis, including excessive workloads, constant deadlines or an individual undertaking too much responsibility.
This type of stress and burnout could also result from a lack of support from colleagues or management, or some form of conflict and confrontation at work, including bullying and harassment. An employee may even be taking sick leave to actively avoid tensions within the workplace.
Indeed, where there are high rates of absenteeism, this is much more likely to be linked to an unhappy and unmotivated workforce, arising either from a negative working environment or poor working conditions.
The impact of absenteeism
In circumstances where your organisation is suffering from high rates of absenteeism, you will need to take steps to identify and address potential causes of the problem.
By failing to take adequate steps to ensure the wellbeing of your workforce, as well as any individual employees with recurring or prolonged absences from work, this could not only result in the loss of valuable members of staff, but could also expose you to grievances and claims from disgruntled employees for any alleged failings.
Needless to say, high rates of absenteeism are also likely to impact on the morale and wellbeing of those employees left to burden any additional workload, possibly resulting in even further absences from work, and a much greater loss of staff, with associated recruitment costs to replace those that leave.
Accordingly, in addition to the short-term financial cost to your business caused by lost working days, any temporary replacement staff and sick pay, in the long-term, the overall economic and operational consequences of absenteeism can be potentially significant for your organisation.
Steps to reduce absenteeism
Given the potential and serious consequences of high rates of absenteeism for your business, both in the short and long-term, it is crucial to take steps to prevent additional absences from work and to reduce absenteeism in the workplace.
In particular, it is important to create a positive working environment in which employees feel valued and supported, and to implement policies and procedures that safeguard their rights, not only in the context of sickness-related absences, but in dealing with the daily pressures of the job, and in addressing any workplace issues or conflict, that can so often lead to work-related stress.
There are a number of ways that you can help to reduce absenteeism, several of which are discussed below, although this list is by no means exhaustive:
1. Up to date absence policy
If your organisation does not already have one, implementing an absence policy can help you not only to measure the rate and types of absences within your workplace, it can also help you to reduce absenteeism.
In particular, by carefully documenting absences from work you can begin to identify any recurring pattern of short-term or long-term absenteeism relating to certain individuals, teams or even the workforce as a whole. In this way, you can monitor any absences from work, the reasons for these and, where necessary, take steps to support an employee’s return.
Managers should also be directed on how to deal with absences which are not to be included within trigger measures, such as pregnancy-related or disability-related absences, to avoid unlawful discrimination.
Further, by setting out how you propose to deal with workplace absence, and by providing clear procedures to follow when an employee is absent from work through sickness, or otherwise, this can help to avoid unauthorised absences.
Your absence policy should explain how an employee should notify you of any absence, when and at what stage evidence of incapacity is required, typically, a fit note from the employee’s GP, and the use of return to work discussions. In many cases, especially following a prolonged absence, an employee’s manager should discuss their absence on their return to work to establish the reason for that absence, what can be done by their employer to help, and whether the employee is actually fit enough to return to work.
Your policy should also contain information about how you will follow up on repeated absences and the potential repercussions for excessive or long-term absenteeism.
2. Making reasonable adjustments
As an employer, by virtue of the Equality Act 2010, you are already under a statutory duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that any employee who is suffering from a disability is not substantially disadvantaged in doing their job.
As such, you must always consider what steps you can take to assist any employee suffering from a long-term physical or mental impairment with their return to work. This could include adjustments to an individual’s working conditions, such as amended duties, altered hours or a phased return. It could also include workplace adaptations, such as the provision of specialist equipment, like an ergonomically designed chair or keyboard.
That said, even where an employee is not suffering from a long-term impairment amounting to a disability under the Act, you may still want to consider what adjustments you can make to reduce absenteeism in the first place, or to assist any employee in their return to work after a prolonged period of sick leave.
The employee’s fit note should set out the nature of the condition for which the employee has been absent and indicate what changes may need to be made to support their return to work.
3. Supportive line management
Ongoing and regular welfare and performance discussions between line managers and team members can help to identify and resolve potential issues early.
Through regular performance reviews, you will have the opportunity to inquire after an employee’s wellbeing within the workplace, regardless of whether or not they have been absent from work. Equally, the employee will be given the chance to voice any concerns, and to confidentially discuss any professional or personal matters that could be affecting their performance at work, including their general health and happiness.
You may also be able to pre-empt any potential absenteeism by exploring ways in which you can support an employee who is struggling with their job either due to physical or mental health problems, or where work-related factors are causing or contributing to their poor health.
While managers are not expected to provide expert medical advice, they should signpost employees to professional support services.
In larger organisations, where you have access to occupational health services, you may need to make a referral where an employee is reporting or displaying signs of work-related stress, or any other symptoms of illness. This will allow for appropriate recommendations to be made on what adjustments could be considered to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for that employee.
For smaller businesses, there may not be the resources to refer an employee to on occupational health specialist. Nonetheless, as the employer, you are still under a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of your employees.
As such, at all times, you should endeavour to ensure that employees are not exposed to a negative working environment or poor working conditions that may be causing or contributing to their poor health. In this way, you will also ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to reduce absenteeism.
4. Reduce workplace stress
Work-related stress is one the main causes of absenteeism within a workplace. This can relate to a number of factors, from an overload of pressures and the demands of the job, to conflict and confrontation between co-workers, or between an employee and their line manager.
By adopting a proactive approach towards wellbeing, and by offering potential solutions to alleviate any workplace pressures, you may be able to prevent symptoms of workplace stress from escalating into a more serious and chronic condition. Accordingly, you may be able to reduce the possibility of recurring and prolonged absences from work caused by anxiety or depression.
You may also be able to reduce the occasions on which sick leave is used to avoid tensions within the workplace, or other forms of unauthorised absence.
There are various way in which you can seek to reduce workplace stress:
- Encourage open communication: by encouraging open communication, employees should feel able to discuss their concerns and disclose any health and welfare problems, allowing you to intervene at an early stage to pre-empt any potential absenteeism.
- Introduce a mental health day: by introducing a mental health day to be taken as paid sick leave, this is likely to reduce the chances of an employee lying about being sick, taking unauthorised absences or being present at work but unfocused and disengaged. Mental health is an important issue that should be openly recognised.
- Introduce mental health first aid: this is a nominated individual who provides mental health-specific support to employees.
- Implement a wellbeing programme: by implementing a wellbeing programme this will show your employees you care about their health and happiness which, in turn, is likely to lead to improved employee engagement and reduced absenteeism. This could include wellbeing days at work, lifestyle assessment days or mental health training, as well as health-based incentives like discounted gym memberships.
- Adopt a caring approach: by adopting a caring and compassionate approach to employees taking time off in emergencies, you may be able to avoid unauthorised or prolonged absences. Although most employees have a statutory right to take time off to care for dependents, or following the death of a loved one, by showing support and understanding this will go a long way to showing your employees you value their wellbeing.
- Adopt a flexible approach: by adopting a flexible approach to working, for example, through offering employees time off in lieu and/or flexible working time, such as condensed hours, working from home or working part-time, this will help to demonstrate that you value the importance of their personal commitments and trust them to work their hours. In turn, this can help to reduce both work-related stress and absenteeism through an improved work/life balance for your workforce.
- Offer support during absences: by offering support whilst an employee is off work, whether this be due to illness, stress, bereavement or otherwise, can help to alleviate an employee’s concerns about being absent from work and encourage their speedy return. This, in itself, can also help to prevent repeated absenteeism.
DavidsonMorris’ specialist HR consultants are experienced in advising employers on workforce management and performance enhancement. This includes reducing absenteeism in the workplace for improved productivity and morale. For more information about how we can help your organisation, speak to us.
Reducing absenteeism in your organisation FAQs
What are the causes of workplace absenteeism?
The most common cause of absenteeism is illness due to a genuine medical condition and work-related stress. Where there are high rates of absenteeism, this is much more likely to be linked to an unhappy and unmotivated workforce, arising either from a negative working environment or poor working conditions.
What are the benefits of reducing employee absenteeism?
Employees can expect financial returns through a reduction in unauthorised and protracted absences and improved workforce morale and productivity.
Can you be sacked for pulling a sickie?
The employment tribunal has previously held ‘sickies’ to be dishonest and a fundamental breach of the employment contract. However, employers must have reasonable grounds for believing an employee is guilty of misconduct. A full and fair investigation will be necessary to avoid unfair dismissal claims.
Last updated: 20 June 2023