Stephanie Dwilson

Do You Know the Full Costs of Workplace Absenteeism?

While you know that employee absence has some effect on your business, it may be costing you more than you realize. But absence management can be a tricky task: You don’t want to set up a culture where employees feel compelled to come to work when they’re sick, causing even more absences. But as a business owner, it’s important to take advantage of the opportunities you do have to cut down on employee absenteeism and prepare your business for the unexpected.

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The Costs of Absenteeism in the Workplace

Absenteeism isn’t limited to employees missing work because they’re sick. The term actually refers to intentional or habitual absence from work, according to the Balance. What are the costs of this chronic behavior?

For the 77 percent of 94,000 employees who missed work because of a chronic health condition in one study, the total cost in lost productivity was $84 billion, Forbes reported. Another study concluded that unscheduled absenteeism cost roughly $3,600 annually for an hourly worker and $2,650 for a salaried worker. These costs included wages paid to absent employees and wages paid to temporary employees or overtime wages for colleague coverage, plus the administrative expense of managing absenteeism.

Additional indirect costs included reduced productivity, poor goods or services because of understaffing or overtime fatigue, safety issues from inadequately trained employees, poor morale from employees who had to do extra work and managers’ spending excess time on discipline and finding replacements.

How to Help Improve Your Employees’ Health

Since chronic and acute illnesses can be major contributors to absenteeism, encouraging your staff to participate in your health plan can go a long way toward managing or improving their health. Each year, run anonymous surveys that ask your employees to share what they like and dislike about your current offerings. This will help you craft a new plan with better participation. You can also encourage proactive wellness by giving your employees free time off to see their doctors — even for preventive issues and yearly physicals. Or consider offering free or discounted gym memberships and vaccinations.

Starting a wellness program can also help with absenteeism, whether it’s a comprehensive plan integrated with your health insurance, a standalone program or just a set of classes and opportunities for employees to get healthier. Some plans even reduce health care premiums if employees meet certain goals. A wellness program might include exercise classes, a 24/7 nurse hotline, health screenings and assessments or even weight-loss or smoking-cessation classes.

Solving the Hidden Causes of Absenteeism

Sometimes absenteeism isn’t caused by physical illness but by a wide range of other issues, from child- or elder-care arrangements falling through to bullying or harassment at work to feeling disengaged from the job. Some of these issues can be alleviated by openly encouraging employees to talk to you or a manager, knowing they won’t lose their chances at advancement if they’re honest about their struggles. A zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination, bullying and harassment is imperative — and employees need to know that you’ll stand behind it.

You might also consider an employee assistance program (EAP), which can help employees more successfully deal with issues like family obligations, mental illness and substance abuse. Confidential services offered by third parties (often health insurance carriers), EAPs typically cost somewhere from $12 to $20 per year per employee — an investment the resulting reduction in absenteeism can actually make back. Common EAP services include licensed counseling sessions, stress-management classes, help finding elder or child care, financial consultations, legal assistance and confidential addiction counseling.

How to Prepare for Unexpected Absences

Even with a push for proactive health and setting up resources to help employees manage life issues, you won’t be able to prevent all unexpected absences. However, some preparation can reduce the overall impact to your business.

One way to do so is to allow employees to work from home occasionally. This generally requires making sure everyone has a laptop or access to a computer at home and an internet connection. This way, if someone needs to stay home because of a minor illness, a weather issue like icy roads, car trouble or child care falling through, they can still get their work done.

When it comes to setting up sick days vs. personal days, according to Forbes, the jury is still out. Remember that certain states and cities require employers to provide sick days. However, you can set up incentives for people to come to work more frequently. For example, give extra time off, a gift card or a bonus for employees without any unexcused absences over an established time frame.

Of course, make sure that doctor- and manager-approved absences are allowed, so you don’t incentivize employees to come to work when they’re contagious.

You might also need to require doctor verification for absences that last a certain amount of time — and take disciplinary action for excessive unexcused absences.

Don’t Swing the Pendulum to Presenteeism

Finally, remember not to make the mistake of coming down so hard on absenteeism that you create a culture of presenteeism. Presenteeism refers to employees coming to work without productively engaging there, whether due to illness or distraction. Presenteeism can cause further absenteeism, so encourage your employees not to come to work if they’re sick and keep an eye on engagement and productivity levels.

In the end, strategies for effective absence management require a difficult balance of empathy and bottom-line awareness. But whatever you can do to help employees show up and do productive work will be worth your while.

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