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5 simple ways to reduce absenteeism at work

Unscheduled absences are high-cost for businesses and employees.

Absenteeism is when an employee is habitually absent from work. Traditionally, absenteeism has referred to not being physically present in the office—it’s not typically associated with working from home. But remote workers can also end up missing work regularly, especially if they’re not receiving adequate mental wellbeing support.

In 2019-20, 38.8 million working days were lost due to work-related illness & injury. Stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 17.9 million of the days lost. That means almost half the days lost in the UK are related to stress and poor mental wellbeing, while in the US more than half of days lost to absenteeism are stress-related.

With so many working days lost, businesses are paying the price in reduced productivity. And it only gets worse from there, as short-term fixes such as shifting work onto other employees, potentially increase those employees’ stress levels and with them, absenteeism and presenteeism. And if businesses decide to outsource work to external contractors or hire temporary staff, they’ll rack up even more expenses.

Absenteeism isn’t just bad for businesses, it’s bad for employees, too. Loss of income, reduced productivity, proverbially playing catch up and fears of losing a job altogether figure among common detrimental effects of missing work too often.

What causes absenteeism?

A survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), looked at health and wellbeing at work in 2020. It revealed the most common reasons for long-term absence were:

1. Mental health conditions

2. Musculoskeletal injuries

3. Stress

4. Acute medical conditions

5. Minor illnesses, eg. cold, flu, upset stomach and headache

Beyond the above, we also see other reasons arise, such as childcare responsibilities. It’s perhaps not surprising with the recent mass shift to remote working and recurring cycles of school closures.

37% of respondents to the CIPD survey cited above said that stress-related absences increased in 2020, with 60% of managers seeing an increase in reported mental health issues in employees.

So what can be done?

Reducing absenteeism: 5 actionable tips

Absenteeism is often the result of poor mental wellbeing. A man sits in a dark room on a sofa, covering his face.

Nik Shuliahin via Unsplash

1. Support physical wellbeing.

OK, you can’t stop people from getting ill...but you can invest in the physical wellbeing of employees and support their overall health. Hopefully, you already have appropriate office furniture like ergonomic chairs to help prevent postural problems. You should also do what you can to ensure remote workers have a suitable home setup—perhaps by offering them a WFH equipment allowance.

You could also offer fitness classes to employees, whether in-person or online, to encourage a bit of physical activity and boost natural feel-good hormones. Regular exercise can improve physical health, self-esteem and sleep while reducing stress, anxiety and depression. If employees aren’t into classes, consider benefits like cycle to work schemes so they can get moving at their own pace.

2. Offer flexible working hours.

Many employees have care responsibilities outside of work. They may have kids who need taking to and from school or be in charge of home-schooling. Or they might have elderly or disabled parents or relatives they need to be there for, sometimes at short notice. In such cases, flexible hours offer a great solution.

Employees can get their work done in hours that suit them, and businesses don’t lose out on productivity because of absences. By trusting employees (in general, and to decide on their own working hours) employers can even increase productivity.

3. Make sure workloads are manageable.

60% of respondents to the CIPD survey mentioned earlier said that the top cause of stress at work was a heavy workload. Add to this the fact that stress is one of the main causes of absenteeism and it becomes apparent just how important it is to monitor your team’s workload. Check in with employees regularly to see how they’re doing and whether they’re able to handle their projects and tasks.

Keep in mind that what’s achievable in a given amount of time varies from person to person, and even season to season. Sometimes even your most switched-on people go through slumps. And when workloads need to be adjusted, adjust them. Give your team members the time and resources they need to help them get things done with minimal stress.

4. Push professional development.

What employees want most from managers is appreciation and recognition. This means actually telling employees they’re doing a great job and showing them through actions (and words) that you care about their future.

When you help people grow their careers, not only will they be more motivated and engaged, they’ll be more invested in the company and its success. Which brings us to our next point—employees who are engaged and enthusiastic are 21% more profitable.

5. Provide mental wellbeing support.

Stress is a corrosive force. It can cause physical illness, damage mental wellbeing and have pervasive effects on our quality of life. It’s also evidently a major cause of absenteeism at work, so for the good of employees and organisations, it’s something that must be addressed.

Providing mental wellbeing support is a great way to do this and something that shows employees that they are genuinely valued and cared for. You could invest in an Employee Assistance Programme, offering counseling, either face to face or online. Another option is providing employees with resilience-boosting programmes based on proven CBT techniques, via an evidence-based wellness app like Foundations​.

Does your business have issues with absenteeism? What are some ways you're supporting your employees' mental wellbeing? Share your experience with us at foundations@koahealth.com.