Staffing Management

4 proven steps for tackling employee absenteeism

By Dan Whitehead

Oct. 18, 2021

Employee absenteeism is a perennial problem, but it is particularly damaging in the shift-based service industries. According to the official 2020 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, service industries have the highest absenteeism rate in the U.S. economy. Workforce.com’s own research backs this up. In our 2021 survey, 31% of businesses listed disruption to shifts caused by employee absenteeism as one of their biggest problems.

Although absenteeism is a recurring issue, there are simple steps managers can take to reduce it. That is, providing they have the data and insight to correctly identify where issues lie.

Locate the problem

Your business is a complicated machine. Just as you wouldn’t try to fix a problem with your car or computer by randomly replacing parts, you can’t successfully address persistent absenteeism in your company without knowing where the problem is.

Using employee scheduling software can tie together all of your shift schedules and time clock information. This joined-up approach allows you to query that data in order to spot the patterns of absenteeism and identify the who, where, and when of the problem.

Identifying the frequent trouble spots is important as the root causes of absenteeism can occur at different organizational levels.

  • Specific staff members: If a particular worker is persistently absent, it’s worth checking if there is a valid reason. There may be problems that can be addressed without escalating to disciplinary procedures.
  • Specific shifts: If you find that absenteeism is a recurring issue only on certain shifts, it could be a problem with a particular shift leader or similar personnel issues that are making employees avoid that shift.
  • Specific locations: If you see red flags for absenteeism at a particular outlet or office, this may be a sign of managerial problems at that location. There could also be local or geographical context — is that location particularly hard to reach on public transport?

Now that you know more about the source of your employee absenteeism, you can start addressing it.

Set clear expectations and consequences

Absences have immediate financial costs for a business. The cost of illness-related absences alone to U.S. businesses in 2019 was over half a trillion dollars. There should, therefore, be no ambiguity over attendance.

While people will get sick and be unable to work, employees should know what is required of them when that happens and also be aware of the disciplinary procedure that will kick in should they not meet their end of the agreement.

Your company needs a clear and accessible employee attendance policy. A good attendance policy should include:

    • How much notice employees must give if they can’t come in.
    • What absence rate is considered unacceptable.
    • How many days of “no-call” absence will be considered grounds for immediate dismissal.

When considering attendance data with regard to employee absenteeism, it is especially important to take absence frequency into account rather than just how many days were missed. Ten days absence in a row caused by genuine serious illness tells a very different story than ten days of last-minute absence spread across the year that always fall on Mondays, for instance.

Create reliable schedules

Unhappy employees become disengaged and prone to increased absence, and erratic shift schedules are a frequent cause of this disconnect. Creating reliable and predictable shifts gives workers more control over their work-life balance and allows them to plan their time with less stress. A Gallup poll makes the connection clear: companies with high levels of staff engagement showed a 41% reduction in employee absenteeism.

Investing in predictive scheduling will not be optional for companies operating in certain U.S. states and cities. Predictive scheduling laws are already on the books in Vermont, Oregon, San Francisco, Berkeley, Emeryville, San Jose, Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Eight more states have pending legislation on the subject.

Whether you are legally obliged to implement such a system or not, it’s worth adopting the most common aspects of predictive scheduling:

  • Changes to schedules should be communicated well in advance.
  • Employees should have sufficient rest between shifts — between 9 and 11 hours.
  • Avoid the practice of “clopening” where the same employee closes up at night and reopens the next morning.
  • Offer available shifts to current employees before taking on temporary staff.

Following these basic rules will encourage a more engaged, happy, and loyal workforce and reduce employee absenteeism.

Offer collaborative scheduling

Absenteeism can also be a sign that employees are unable to work the shifts they’ve been assigned. One way around this is to give employees the ability to have more say in which shifts they work or even swap shifts with colleagues. Allowing this involvement in the scheduling process helps employees fit work around their other commitments.

Not only does this collaboration remove one of the common excuses for missing work, but research also supports the idea that offering employees more control over when they work directly addresses the causes of employee absenteeism. A FlexJobs survey found that 80% of workers are more loyal to their company if their hours are more flexible, and loyal employees are present employees.

There are two methods of introducing more collaborative scheduling to your company — shift bids and shift swaps. With shift bids, the manager puts out a list of the shifts that need to be filled, employees bid to be assigned the ones most convenient to them, and the manager makes the final choice from those who put themselves forward. With shift swaps, workers are able to trade shifts on an ad-hoc basis while the manager signs off on the swaps to ensure full staff coverage is maintained. In both cases, employees get more control over when they work, without undermining the manager’s authority.

The prospect of changing the way your shifts are assigned can seem daunting, but employee scheduling software such as Workforce.com has features to streamline the process for easy implementation.

Employee absenteeism is your alarm call

A high level of employee absenteeism is a sign that something isn’t working in your business. Consider it a warning that staff morale is low, and there are scheduling and managerial issues that need to be addressed to stem the tide. Data from your employee scheduling software will identify these pain points, and the responses listed above will tackle not just the symptoms of absenteeism but the cause as well. Seize the opportunity to make your business work better, and you’ll not only solve your immediate absence problems but create a happier, more engaged workforce for long-term benefits.

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