Last reviewed 25 April 2018

If you view employee absences as an inevitability of working life, then think again — carefully. You are right to a point. Some absences are inevitable: booked holidays, arranged days off for funerals, hospital appointments and, as you have agreed these in advance, you should be able to cope with them. But, as Bob Patchett points out, it is the unexpected absences that are the problem.

Whether for a day or a fortnight, they are disruptive, cause you extra work in finding cover, and may cause inconvenience to the absent person’s colleagues. Moreover, if diligent employees consider that a colleague’s absences are unnecessary but go unchallenged, morale will fall and they themselves will be less willing to struggle to work if they have a cold. So, think carefully and take action!

Check your work environment

Some work by its nature is unpleasant — outdoors in bad weather, operating noisy equipment — and employees who choose to do it are prepared to put up with discomfort. Nevertheless, do you do enough to make work easier for them by providing warm clothing, ear protectors and so on? You may however find that some people are affected by unpleasant conditions that could be improved. Could furniture be rearranged to shelter employees from distractions or draughts, could doors be made quieter, or ventilation improved? Ask employees if they are comfortable. They may make suggestions and certainly will feel more valued for being asked. So:

  • walk your territory; how would you like working there?

  • ask employees for their views.

Be positive — encourage attendance

Employees generally like to feel they are important people who are doing something useful — but may need convincing that that is so. Therefore, a powerful way of improving your attendance levels is by working on those factors. Keep all your employees informed of the performance of the organisation. Publish any complimentary messages from customers. Display pictures of your products being used. Talk freely about plans for the business. And then bring every employee to understand the important part he or she plays in your operations, either individually or as part of a team. Play the team card hard. Most work is carried out in teams and it is usually easy to show exactly how the team fits into the overall operation of your organisation, but supervisors themselves should be encouraged to emphasise the important role of each employee as a team member, the implication being that, if they fail to attend work, the performance of their team is diminished, and their colleagues are inconvenienced.

Overblown titles are of limited use so, rather than express job titles, use brief purpose statements. Not “you are a yard sweeper” but “we rely on you to keep the yard in good order”. In this way you make people feel important and needed, which in turn may persuade them to come to work rather than stay in bed with their headache, or to trudge through snow to get to their job.

Financial incentives are a poor tactic. To succeed they would need to be substantial. If someone sees snow on the drive or feels a bit morning-after, what level of incentive would swing the balance from staying at home to going to work? And would some form of group bonus truly affect the decision? After all, the reward for coming to work is wages.

  • Keep alive employees’ interest in the organisation’s performance.

  • Emphasise the importance of their team in achieving the organisation’s aims.

  • Remind employees of their purpose rather than their job title.

Convey your views on weather and sickness problems

Quite often, diligent employees are unclear what to do if problems arise that question the wisdom of them going to work. Should they risk their health and limbs by struggling to drive or walk in fog or snow? Much will depend upon your location, public transport availability and the distance people have to travel, so think carefully then give them your broad views. You could do much to reduce winter absenteeism by encouraging everyone to have a flu jab or even paying for a nurse to inoculate your employees at work. But again, advise people what to do if, for example, they develop cold symptoms. Would you prefer them to have a couple of days off and lose their work, or come in and spread their germs to others? You decide, but tell them.

Use return-to-work interviews

Probably the most powerful method of improving your attendance levels is the return-to-work interview. This technique demands consistency and time that you may be reluctant to expend, but it can have a dramatic impact on your attendance levels. Avoid any suggestions of discrimination by interviewing everyone who returns to work after an unplanned absence. Indeed, there is much to be said for having a talk to people returning from holiday — “Good to have you back, did you have a good time, this is what has happened while you were away” — or from a day off to attend a funeral — “I hope it went off alright” — or from sickness absence — “Hope you feel much better now”. It shows you care, which might just sway the balance the next time a home-or-work decision looms.

The real value of the return-to-work interview is its impact on employees who come back to work after an unplanned absence. To be effective it should be carried out as soon as possible after the person’s return, and ideally before starting work. Use a form that requires the employee to say in his or her own words why the absence was necessary and what was done to let you know. Have the employee complete this in your presence because for some reason it seems to inject a sense of honesty. Then go through the form with the person. Be prepared to ask probing questions such as “Did you see a doctor or ring the surgery or consult a pharmacist?” Allow the employee to be seen by someone of the same gender if this seems appropriate. A good line of questioning is to enquire what might have caused the problem and how a recurrence might be avoided. If you can identify some action that the employee could take to avoid similar occurrences, have him or her write it out on the back of the form and sign it as a commitment. Give the employee a photocopy of the commitment and you are likely to find that it is followed. Be sure to indicate the problem the employee’s absence caused to you and to team colleagues. If you are not satisfied with the employee’s account, then you have the range of sanctions provided by your disciplinary procedure, but usually the detailed interrogation and a word in the ear are sufficient to change the employee’s attitude to absence. So:

  • explain your bad weather and minor illness views

  • consider providing flu jabs

  • use return-to-work interviews consistently

  • use a form and probing interview

  • get written and signed commitments for improved behaviour

  • use your disciplinary procedure wisely.

Be firm but fair

You can achieve significant improvements to your attendance levels without adopting a repressive management style. Indeed, responsible employees will respect you for acting against colleagues who let the team down by unnecessary absences.