Reducing Sick Leave

Decreasing Absenteeism… and its Costs

"Reducing sick leave"

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Do you ever get frustrated with workers who call in sick too often? Or are you more concerned about sick people who DON'T stay at home, and spread illness to other workers?

Sick leave for staff, whether it's used for legitimate or not-so-legitimate reasons, has become a major problem for many organizations and industries worldwide. Each year, it costs companies around the world billions of dollars. What's more, in many countries, public sector workers take a considerably higher proportion of sick days than their private sector counterparts, meaning that it's even more costly for governments and for tax payers.

The United States is unusual among developed countries, because it doesn't require organizations to pay for sick leave, although many state and local governments are now considering the need for legislation in this area. However, some companies are starting to reduce sick pay to offset increased health care insurance costs for their workers.

So what do all of these sick days really cost your company?

Costs of Sick Leave

Sick days delay work, causing projects to fall behind schedule. They create stress for other workers, who must make up for lost productivity. And, because other people may need to work overtime to make up for the time lost, they add to overtime bills.

On the other hand, some workers don't receive sick pay. If they're paid only for the actual hours they work, they may feel they can't afford to stay home when they're sick. If they come to work, they may pass their illness to co-workers. This, in turn, makes the situation much worse, because even more workers then become sick – which can cause more "down time" and increased costs in medical care.

Sick pay policies are generally designed to treat people fairly and discourage abuse, but many workers still don't use them properly. We'll look at the reasons for this, and we'll suggest some practical steps that companies can take to reduce absenteeism.

Causes of Too Much Sick Leave

There are two main reasons for high rates of absenteeism: (1) an abnormal amount of illness, and (2) abuse of the system by workers who call in sick when they're actually perfectly healthy. Causes for one or both of these may be as follows:

  • Actual physical or mental illness.
  • An unhealthy lifestyle.
  • The need to care for family members.
  • Personal emotional issues.
  • Problems in the workplace, causing avoidance or stress-related illness.
  • Lack of understanding of sick leave policies.
  • Low job satisfaction and disengagement, often resulting from a low level of control over work or decision-making.
  • Low quality of life in economic, social, and physical terms.
  • A lack of appreciation that work brings obligations as well as rewards.

Identifying the Problem

There are many ways of viewing the sick leave problem, and each instance has its own individual nature. Therefore, finding a standard solution that works for all situations is impractical. So, start by investigating the causes of above-average sick leave in your company. This will help you design the interventions that are most likely to be successful.

While high rates of absenteeism tend to attract a lot of management attention, it's worth remembering that most organizations also benefit from individuals and groups who rarely miss a day of work.

Luck is a big part of whether or not people get the flu or catch a cold each year. However, a combination of healthy lifestyles and a positive office environment can reduce your workers' time off sick.

Stopping the Trend

To start improving the situation, apply some of the management principles discussed in our articles on Creating Job Satisfaction   and Working with Purpose  . Also, use some of these guidelines to further minimize unnecessary sick days:

  • Become aware of, and responsive to, subtle indications of worker unhappiness or tension.
  • Offer rewards for zero absenteeism.
  • Carefully educate new hires about company policies. If policies change, make sure that you educate everyone on these.
  • Research and discover new methods for reducing physical stress that workers may suffer on the job – for example, where they're standing all day, or performing repetitive movements.
  • Provide training for managers and supervisors so they can deal perceptively and effectively with staff who have a lot of unexplained sick leave.
  • Offer opportunities for in-house exercise.
  • Consider giving workers additional days off, as part of their annual benefits, that are specifically for "preventive health care."
  • Be flexible about allowing workers to make up time they've taken off for a legitimate reason – for example, to care for a sick family member. If people have the "responsible" option to make up a lost day by working a few extra hours each day in the following week, rather than using up their valuable vacation time, they may not feel the need to take a sick day.

These solutions consider the workers' needs, and they also help ensure that your team will be more enthusiastic and dedicated in return.

To approach the issue proactively, you not only want to seek the cause of the overall problem, but also consider individual cases. The best way to avoid abuse of your sick policy is usually to promote an attitude of compassion – workers should feel as though their well-being matters to you. So, to reduce absenteeism, make company policies clear. Be available to answer any questions – and also offer workshops that teach staff how to take personal responsibility for improving their lives.

Unfortunately, however, despite your best efforts to encourage a responsible attitude toward sick leave, you may encounter an employee or two who are indeed abusing the system. Examples include consistently calling in sick right before, or after, a long weekend break, booking off time whenever the workload increases, or suddenly coming down with a cold whenever there's a fresh dump of powder at the local ski hill. Dealing with these employees requires a very systematic approach. Many jurisdictions have a lot of case law on sick leave and disciplinary approaches related to it.

  • Start by developing a comprehensive sick leave policy and monitor sick leave for all employees. Use the tips above to draft a policy that will work for your organization.
  • Apply the policy equally to everyone. For instance, you can't require doctor's notes from some and not from others.
  • Be careful of human rights issues related to sick leave. Again this can be a minefield of legislative issues.

If you take a consistent, firm, and compassionate approach to sick leave management, you should be able to deal effectively with the employees who do seem to be taking advantage. As with all employee feedback issues, communicate your expectations clearly, and follow through. Working together to find a solution allows you to address the problem and enhance employee commitment and engagement.

Key Points

Sick leave issues are varied and complex.

Many companies around the world guarantee sick pay for workers who are ill, though not every country requires it.

Where people are not paid, this can cause sick people to come to work, which can lead to poor productivity as well as spreading illness to other workers.

Abuse of paid sick leave can have serious financial costs. Companies should be willing negotiators and develop an understanding with their team members about the issue. Organizations are more likely to succeed if they determine, and address, the root cause of any abuse – instead of creating strict rules or rewards that may not be effective.

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Comments (7)
  • Greg wrote Over a month ago
    Absenteeism can also be caused by poor management practices. Keeping an eye on organizations that have consistent high levels of absenteeism can be a sign of overwork or poor managment.
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Thank you, all, for your comments!

    May - I agree so much. When you have the right people in your team, everything is so much easier, and things can be so much more positive. It's a reminder to all of us to be incredibly careful when we recruit new team members.

    And Lulu, Yolande and Midgie - what great "case studies" of the success of taking a mature and thoughtful approach to dealing with this issue!

  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all

    Interesting exercise that Lulu did - I did something similar a number of years ago as we experienced absenteeism problems in certain departments. I picked up similar tendencies: Mondays and Fridays were 'favourite' sick days; before a long weekend as well. It was also higher in certain departments than in other - which gave a clear indicator that we needed to work with those managers more and help them develop their people and team building skills. At the time I found it interesting that something as negative as excessive absenteeism (and recording the tendencies) could have such a positive outcome and that it led to big improvements in those departments.

    Kind regards
  • lulu wrote Over a month ago
    Good point May! When I monitored the absenteeism, clearly I could not determine whether sick leave was taken for valid reasons, and certainly would not have assumed otherwise. It was looking at a pattern across the organisation and having a talk to staff about how it seemed that our workplace was taking more sick leave than others of a similar size. Midgie is also right about flexibility and working with staff as individuals. I think the best way to retain staff is to treat them as individuals, and work with them on their individual needs to ensure that they are happy at work and continue to be motivated.

    What I did notice was that there were some staff who appeared to always take a Monday or Friday off sick and where they may have had 10 days sick leave for the year, it was taken as one day every month on a Friday or Monday. I did not approach that person individually about this particular issue, but kept that in the back of my mind when meeting with this staff member on a monthly basis. I would often ask whether everything was going well at home, levels of motivation, etc. It gave me a heads up, that was all.

    As a whole though, it worked very well as staff collectively looked for ways to improve morale and we found lots of other underlying issues that were affecting motivation and worked to address those. In my view levels of motivation immediately went up as staff saw that I was genuinely interested in how they felt about work, what could we do better, what were their individual needs.

  • mayc wrote Over a month ago
    This is a real tricky issue and I don't think there are any easy answers. We knew we had a problem at our workplace so we started monitoring and yes, there were some definite patterns that emerged. The problem is, how do you prove a person isn't sick? Then if they are legitimately sick (or have a Doctor who will back them up) and you discipline or even fire them, then you're held-up on an unfair labor charge. We looked at all the options and decided a fair policy combined with a ramped up effort on individual managers and supervisor's parts was the best we could do. I have a colleague in a unionized environment whose hands are so tied with absenteeism they basically know exactly what days employees will book off sick without even having to be notified. Getting the right people in the rights jobs is the only real solution in my opinion and that's no easy task either. Can you tell I'm in a particularly cynical mood today? I hate when I get this negative cloud over me but sometimes I just want to shake certain people and tell them they are lucky to have a job or go through the employment roster with a swathe and cut half the people off the payroll and start fresh.

    May - frustrated, fed-up, and tired of rampant unprofessionalism!
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    For me, in addition to finding out the root cause of why an employee is taking lots of sick leave, it is important for managers to treat each individual individually.

    Yes, rules and procedures are in place to ensure consistency across the board, and it is important to treat all employees the same, as we've just had a discussion on this topic - - however, at the same time, when it comes to sick leave or extended absences, each case needs to be handled separately.

    Although the procedures can be used as guidelines, some flexibility is necessary. One example that comes to mind is when a friend was taking lots of time off to care for their dying husband. Some employees moaned about how much they were being absent from the office, yet when I asked them whether they would want to switch places, they stopped complaining.

    As an employer, it was deemed appropriate to grant additional time off rather than force them to come into work when they would clearly not be mentally there. Or worst, have them resign from their job to focus on what is important which would have been additional strain on them.

    So, all in all, guidelines are good and consistency is important, yet at the same time, treat each case on an individual basis.

    Anyone else, thoughts?

  • lulu wrote Over a month ago
    Interesting topic James. When I worked for a Govt Dept, I thought that staff were taking an incredible amount of sick leave. So I recorded it all separately on a spreadsheet and looked for trends (Mondays, Fridays, staff who used up all their sick leave every year, those that had children etc). I then compared it with similar Govt Depts and found that we indeed had a high absenteeism rate. So I surveyed staff and found that morale was low and we worked together on ideas to improve that. It certainly went some way to reduce the absenteeism in the office.

    The other important aspect is that I am now delivering training on workplace bullying and how domestic violence impacts on the workplace and these have a major influence on an the amount of sick leave, stress leave taken. Certainly giving training to managers and key contactpoint staff within an organisation, also goes someway to addressing this.

    Monitoring absenteeism is really important - you certainly learn a lot about staff habits and commitment!!


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