Answers for absence: Starting to face today's pressing HR challenges

HR professional sitting in chair surrounded by empty desks due to increased employee absence

Over the past several months, I've had the opportunity to start presenting in person again to several audiences made up of mostly human resources professionals. In each session, I ask the audience a simple question: “Who’s hiring?” It’s at that point where I hear a few snickers, groans, and the occasional outburst of laughter. In a completely unscientific estimate, I’d venture to say that more than 80 percent of people I’ve polled were actively recruiting for their organization. In other words, understaffing is a major problem. If you’re someone who'd have raised your hand in response to my question I likely don’t have to tell you that, though.

There has also been a marked rise in absenteeism in the workplace since the pandemic began, but not just absenteeism in the traditional sense of the word. If you're wondering how this relates to the recruiting issue I just mentioned, stay with me for a minute and I promise it'll all come together.

Yes, it's still true that people call out of work all the time for various reasons (some better than others), but when we look at absenteeism in the workplace we must also look at the whole picture: employee disengagement, lack of productivity, the sheer amount of open positions not being filled, and absence in the traditional sense of the word, too — people just aren't present, whether physically, mentally, or otherwise.

Absenteeism isn't something that's new per se, but the rise in it should be cause for concern among HR and business professionals alike — especially in small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). The real question that we must strive to answer is the why behind the absences, regardless of what form they take.

To find that “why,” let's take a look at some areas we should explore to arrive at clear answers around absence. These are just starting points — there's a lot to cover under each of the topics listed here, and that's exactly what future articles in this series will do.


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Targeting areas of change

Change and uncertainty have been constant, and it appears that those things won’t stop any time soon both in and out of the work environment. Employees were stressed out before the current disruption hit — and they’re undoubtedly dealing with more challenges now. These new levels of stress and disruption to routines and everything that was once familiar undoubtedly has led to an increase in absenteeism. While that cannot — and should not — be denied, employers that are proactive and forward-thinking should take this opportunity to reevaluate their processes and procedures to determine where change should be considered to improve employee engagement, ensure retention, and increase staffing levels.

It's also important to remember that some fields are more affected by disruption than others. Front-line, hourly, and retail workers, for example, have been hit particularly hard by disruption to schedules and routines. What this means for employers is that it’s become increasingly clear that deeper change is needed to keep up with the new expectations of employees that have become staples in the modern era of work. Employees want — and expect — employers to see them as a whole person, and not just a worker.

Start with the basics

With change, uncertainty, and absenteeism disrupting work, it might seem difficult for employers to determine where to start to effect meaningful change. But fear not—oftentimes simplicity is best. There are several key areas to focus in on, and these are largely dependent on the current state of the business, industry, and the severity of staffing problems and absenteeism at your particular organization. Let's take a deeper look at these.

Wages and benefits

Organizations, and especially SMBs, must be sure to keep a pulse on inequalities and perceived inequalities when it comes to pay and benefits. Ensuring easy access to data via dashboards on your HCM system can help provide solutions to problems before they happen. Preventing these problems is critical, because if employees don’t feel like they're treated fairly in terms of their pay and benefits, they are likely to become disengaged and the threat of absenteeism and turnover will increase.

Upskilling and reskilling

Upskilling and reskilling are mutually beneficial endeavors for both the employer and the employees. Employees obtain new knowledge, skills, and abilities and feel that the company is invested in their development and future, fostering a sense of belonging and enhancing the employee experience. Forward-thinking companies that reskill and upskill employees become known for investing in their workers, thus becoming an employer of choice. Additionally, business needs are met by a workforce that is armed with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to take productivity to another level. All of these work together to combat absenteeism.

HR professionals are in a good position to determine whether the business has a need to upskill or reskill, and if so which employees have the desire and qualifications to be a part of that process. Managers seeking high performing teams can partner with HR to determine where employees may be lacking in terms of needed competencies. Sharing the challenge with managers and involving them in decisions and outcomes only serves to strengthen organizational cohesion, breeding trust and productivity and improving retention.

DEI&B initiatives

Another area that organizations should home in on is making sure that diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B) strategies are on point. Lack of inclusivity stunts togetherness and creativity, and leads to absenteeism, turnover, a negative company culture, and a negative perception of the company in the job market that also slows recruiting. With shifts in societal norms comes shifts in workplace norms as well. Companies must stay on top of diversity and inclusion efforts to ensure they are hitting the mark. This is another area where your HR software can provide easy visibility into metrics via reporting and dashboards.

Conclusion: The answer to absence is the right technology paired with a strong company culture

A good company culture will be apparent when wages and benefits, learning and development opportunities, and diversity initiatives are aligned with business strategy to allow companies to take a people-first approach. Of course this is not an exhaustive list of elements that need to be on point in order for organizations to maintain a good company culture, but it’s a start.

The importance of HR technology in combatting absenteeism cannot be overstated. Haphazardly choosing tech options for people and payroll processes will not serve the organization well from the perspective of attracting and retaining employees. Having an intentionally and thoughtfully implemented HCM system that is people-first and easy to use anytime, anywhere will ensure that employees know they have the tools they need for success throughout the employee lifecycle. This not only helps ensure a positive employee experience but also positively impacts your people's lives outside of work — helping to make or keep your organization an employers of choice.

Be on the lookout for more in this series on answers for absence in the workplace. If you need help making the case right now for HR technology to help address the challenges we've discussed, check out our full range of HCM resources and get the tools you need to convince your leadership team.