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Sick and Tired

Wednesday, September 1, 2010 - 08:51

Absences from the office are about a lot more than illness, experts say, and there's plenty a manager can do to reduce downtime caused by 'sickies'. By Chris Sheedy.

Believe it or not, organisational research suggests staff in many workplaces together develop something of an unwritten agreement regarding how many sick days are acceptable each year. And, in many of those organisations, staff will ensure they take their quota, having legitimised their absence thanks to the behaviour of their manager.

A researcher at the forefront of absenteeism at work is Professor Gary Johns, an internationally respected Professor of Management at Concordia University in Montreal Canada. Two of the biggest causes of absence, he says, are, one, feelings of unfairness in how staff are treated, and, two, social causation, or the imitation of the behaviour of others.

"There is no normal amount of absence," Johns says. "There are major differences across companies, countries and professions. But research shows staff tend to peg absenteeism behaviour on that of others around them. So when people join organisations their attendance behaviour fluctuates for the first few months, but over time it gravitates towards the norm that has been established within their unit."

What causes absenteeism?

As illness-related explanations are generally the only reasons accepted for unplanned absences from work, other reasons can go unnoticed or unmeasured, says Dr Stefani Yorges, Graduate Co-Ordinator Psychology at Pennsylvania's West Chester University in the US.

"There can be sensitive issues that prevent people from going to work, such as difficulties with partners, problems with children, or drug dependency," Yorges says. "Other factors may include psychological difficulties or perceptions that their work life is unfair in terms of return for input.

"There are also individuals who need to exert some control over their work environment, and without this, take time off. Others may feel their efforts are not recognised and that 'no one cares anyway'."

Johns estimates that around 30-50 per cent of sick days in a typical organisation are not due to illness. It's not uncommon, he says, for staff members to collude and plan their sick-day roster. But one of the strongest root causes of absenteeism is perceived unfairness in the workplace, which, Johns points out, is absolutely under the control of individual managers.

"Employees are very sensitive to fairness and absenteeism is one of the few ways they can affect the personal balance sheet quickly. There's a point at which this behaviour can be seen as legitimate. Managers have to be supersensitive to fairness," Johns suggests.

Reducing absenteeism

Executive mentor Joe Tyney from Carnegie Management Group has a unique way of showing managers the value of staff engagement as it relates to workplace absenteeism. He simply asks the manager, "Do you wash a hire car before you return it?". "Of course not," they reply, Tyney says.

"Then I ask 'why not', and they tell me it's because it's not theirs. Then I ask whether they wash their own car. 'Of course I do' they reply. 'Why do you wash your own car?' I ask. 'Because it's mine and I care about it' they say. And there's your answer: you want staff to feel some ownership of your business. That way they'll always want it to shine and will do everything they can to avoid having it damaged."

People respond to how they're treated, Tyney says, and the solution to absenteeism begins with leadership and management. Managers must get to know their staff personally, not to a stage where they're becoming intrusive on the staff member's life, but they should know which football team they follow and how many kids they have. Leadership should be visible, he says, and this starts with the development of visible relationships.

Employees need to know what their place is in the company and how what they do impacts on where the company is going, Tyney says. "They need to feel part of the company and know their opinion is valued. If there are good relationships and clear expectations and staff feel managers care about them then staff won't want the company to suffer."

Improving morale

Morale, then, is a major contributor to absenteeism rates. "Targeting three specific areas will likely bring significant change in absenteeism levels," Yorges says.

"These are: improving the skills of current supervisors; recognising and rewarding employee contributions; and increasing employee involvement in decision-making processes."

Finally, it's vital for managers to convey the importance of good attendance to employees, Johns says. Too often the matter will only become an issue when somebody is found to be seriously exploiting the system, but this does nothing to change habits of the mass of staff taking their regular amount of days.

If a manager conveys expectations that staff will come to work each day, and is honestly concerned when there are problems with absence, then chances are that absenteeism rates will decrease.