3 benefits options HR can use to combat absenteeism

Employee with blue jacket on leaving the office unexpectedly absenteeism concept

Employers, time for a poll: How many of your people called out sick this past Monday?

Super Bowl Sunday often translates to No-Show Monday. Last year, The Workforce Institute’s 2021 Super Bowl Absence Survey found that an estimated 16.1 million U.S. employees were planning to miss work the next day. What’s more, the widespread adoption of remote work due to COVID-19 added new absenteeism concerns for employers; 33 percent of employees who worked remotely said they planned to slack off the day after the Super Bowl because their “employer won’t know," while 2.9 million employees said they planned to “ghost” work (not show up, and not tell anyone) on No-Show Monday.

This is just a timely example of one aspect of the pervasive absence issue that continues to plague employers: absenteeism.


State of the HR Function in Small to Mid-Sized Businesses absenteeism banner


What makes absenteeism different?

Absenteeism refers to an employee’s habitual absence from work. This is different from planned absences, such as vacations or scheduled PTO, and is also usually differentiated from occasional unplanned absences due to an inevitable illness. When unplanned absences become chronic or continue for extended periods of time, they become absenteeism— and this is where problems arise.

The CDC Foundation estimates that productivity losses stemming from absenteeism cost U.S. employers $225.8 billion each year, or $1,685 per employee. This data is from 2015 — I could not find a more recent reputable figure — and is almost certainly higher today. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated absenteeism in certain occupational groups — particularly healthcare, manufacturing, and other front-line roles — due to the pervasiveness of disease and strict quarantine protocols. According to a study by the Integrated Benefits Institute, the cost of employee benefits for absent workers due to COVID-19 alone could cost employers more than $23 billion.

It’s worth noting that these estimates are conservative, as they only reflect direct costs such as lost productivity and wages. Absenteeism negatively impacts employers in many ways, including reduced quality of goods and services and wasted management time. What’s more, employees who do show up to work — particularly those in front-line or customer-facing roles — are often burdened with extra duties and responsibilities to fill in for absent employees. This can lead to chronic feelings of frustration and a decline in morale that ripples out from the initial individual. It’s also, of course, a huge red flag for turnover.

The trouble with absenteeism and incentives

Absenteeism is a particularly challenging problem for employers because there are both legitimate and illegitimate reasons to miss work. It can also be difficult to determine for sure whether or not someone was actually sick without requiring a doctor’s note (which is a sure-fire strategy to breed a culture of distrust). At the same time, there are considerable costs to having employees come in when they’re sick, potentially infecting dozens of other employees or customers in the process.

For this reason, it’s unwise to pursue incentives that reward employees for not having absences (a strategy many organizations have attempted in the past). A much better approach is a holistic, multifaceted strategy that focuses on helping employees prioritize their physical, psychological, environmental and economic health. When your people are happy, healthy, and enjoying a relatively stable work-life balance, they are much more likely to be both physically capable and motivated to bring their best selves to work each day.

Uncovering the root causes contributing to absenteeism and, wherever possible, extending support to affected employees is absolutely key. Once this has been established, disciplinary measures — such as written warnings and termination — can unfortunately become a necessary part of any absence management strategy.

But perhaps the best way to combat absenteeism is through enhancing employee benefits. Here are three key offerings to consider:

1. Mental health support

Depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders are a leading cause of absenteeism worldwide. One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it thrust the mental health at work conversation into the forefront, as record numbers of employees began suffering from mental health issues amid the most uncertainty-riddled years of their lives. As a result, the stigma surrounding mental health has begun to dissipate and many employers are proactively investing in mental health benefits.

From employee assistance programs (EAPs) to meditation and other mental health apps and subscriptions, there are a variety of fantastic solutions to explore. A critical piece of the puzzle, however, is training managers on the prevalence and importance of mental health issues and hopefully helping them create open and inclusive relationships with their direct reports.

2. Proactive burnout prevention

Burnout has been identified as one of the top factors driving the Great Resignation as well as a major contributor to absenteeism and other mental health disorders. The consequences of burnout on individuals’ physical health and wellbeing can be quite severe, and in addition to driving absenteeism it can also drive presenteeism — where the employee may be physically present, but unable to perform or produce well.

At its core, burnout is a work problem. According to a 2020 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health journal, “Ample research has established that employees who are confronted with high job demands together with low job resources are at risk of burnout.” The Areas of Worklife model, drawn from research from UC Berkeley and Acadia University, identifies six primary factors that lead to burnout: workload, perceived lack of control, reward, community, fairness, and values mismatch. In this way, individual coping strategies such as meditating or engaging in self-care are simply inefficient at managing or preventing burnout—organizations and people leaders need to proactively work with their people in each of these six categories to prevent any of these factors from leading to chronic burnout.

This is also a clear opportunity for business leaders to map flight risk and burnout trends and leverage findings to develop organization-wide strategies.

3. Flexible scheduling

Offering flexible scheduling options has been shown to increase job satisfaction and lower burnout. Flexiblity gives employees the opportunity to show up for the rest of their lives more consistently and adaptably, investing in their families and social lives in ways that support their overall well-being. Several years ago, Gallup developed a wellbeing model that defined wellbeing as five interrelated elements: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical. Their findings showed that when employees were thriving in at least four of these elements, they were four times less likely to feel burnout at work. Flexible scheduling is a key strategy to help employees do just that.

Conclusion: Choice helps combat absenteeism

As the benefit options above illustrate, dealing with absenteeism isn't about covering up the issue with incentives or enforcing discipline — instead, it involves creating an atmosphere of support and choice. When your people feel they have control over the different life and work priorities that matter to them and freedom to adapt as needed to make it all fit, they'll be more likely to reliably show up where and when you need them.

If you'd like to explore more about the importance of choice in the modern workplace, I highly recommend you check out our ebook on the subject. There are tons of interaction points across all parts of your people's journey at your organization where you can make meaningful impacts.

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