“Where’s Mark?” “He took a sick leave today, I think.” “Hmm, didn’t you guys go out last night?” “Um..yeah but I think he ate something and got food poisoning.

Perhaps Mark is genuinely sick. Or, perhaps he had one too many last night.

Either way, he isn’t at work today. 

Absence management is precisely dealing with situations like these. It is the practice of reducing unplanned nonattendance at the workplace

Absenteeism costs the US economy more than $200 billion in productivity losses each year. Therefore, it’s critical that your organization has a structured way to deal with it. 

There can be many reasons why an employee might not show up to work, ranging from stress, bullying at the workplace and low morale to illness or personal loss. 

Here are 6 essential tips to strengthen your organization’s absence management strategy:

1. Keep track of attendance, create policies but don’t automate penalization

One of the first things that you need to do to reduce absenteeism is to create a systematic way to track the attendance of your employees. There are many tools available online that can help such as Jibble, Clockify, and BambooHR. 

Then, no matter how open and flexible your company culture is, you need a formal absence management policy. It should explain what sort of unplanned absences are acceptable to the company and which aren’t. For example, it should contain information on:

  • How does an employee take sick leave? Whom should they notify and by when?

  • After how many sick leaves do employees need to present a medical certificate?

  • How does an employee know that their attendance is becoming an issue?

Be aware of local federal laws while creating the absence management policy. Many countries have laws that protect employees against different kinds of unplanned absences. 

However, treat your formal policy as a set of guidelines and not laws. This means rather than having a blanket policy to penalize, you should carefully treat each case separately. For example, if an employee is sick and you visit them in the hospital; it won’t make sense to ask for a medical certificate to process sick leaves. 

2. Train managers in absence management

Although absence management primarily falls under the domain of HR, it’s not solely their responsibility. Line managers should take equal ownership of it. However, in many organizations, they are not provided sufficient training in absence management. 

This is where HR can step in and coach managers (especially first-level managers) in how to prevent absenteeism in their teams. This can include coaching managers in dealing with situations like:

  • How to deal with an employee that has frequently started taking sick leaves?

  • When to enforce policy and when to make an exception?

  • When to escalate matters to the HR?

Once line managers assume a more proactive role in absence management, you’ll see absenteeism rates take a nosedive. 

3. Remember, presenteeism isn’t the goal

It’s critical to note that the goal of absence management is reducing absenteeism not encouraging presenteeism. 

There’s a huge difference between the two. 

Presenteeism is when an employee forces themselves to show up to work despite feeling unwell. There can be many reasons behind this ranging from unreasonable management expectations to genuine devotion towards one’s job. 

You might think how can more work hours from employees hurt the company? Apart from the stress and burnout, it can actually affect the overall productivity of the organization. Although it’s harder to quantify the financial impact of presenteeism than absenteeism. Various studies have shown that its impact can be equal if not worse. An employee who’s unwell will naturally do their job with less efficiency and also risks affecting others at work. 

That’s why to curb absenteeism you should refrain from policies that promote presenteeism, such as rewarding employees for not taking sick/vacation leaves or allowing them to cash in on pending leaves. 

4. Embrace flexible working hours and remote work

According to a study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, flexible working hours can reduce absenteeism. A survey by flexjobs revealed that employees (especially parents) value flexibility even more than salary. 

Understandably, flexibility at work (being remote, flexible work hours) depends on the nature of industry and organization. Certain jobs require presence at work during specific hours. However, if your company isn’t one of them, you should consider offering more flexibility to your team.

Employees might call in sick for work if they have certain important errands to run during working hours - fixing plumbing, going to kids’ school, etc. If they can adjust their schedules around it, they’ll be more inclined to show up to work.

Another important part of flexibility is remote work, which is increasingly becoming one of the most popular company culture trends. Remote work is no longer considered a privilege offered by a few new-age companies. Many employees now expect remote work when they look for a new job. 90% of people who have worked remotely plan to work remotely for the rest of their lives. Allowing people to work remotely considerably reduces the reasons an employee might consider to take sick leave. 

Remote work is increasingly getting wider acceptance even among more traditional companies due to the rising popularity of online collaboration tools

5. Improve team morale, before it’s too late

Have you noticed that the talks of team morale usually come up when something has gone wrong? Often that becomes a consideration for management only when it’s on the downward spiral. 

Making the work environment fun and engaging is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to curb absenteeism. It, therefore, bodes well for the entire organization to invest in improving workplace morale even when there are no red flags around. 

Ping pong tables and HR designed team-building exercises might not always be the answers. It’s important to understand the pulse of your team to know what would work to boost their morale. Some teams might prefer outdoor activities together, some might be happy with a few drinks after work.

However, what unquestionably works for all teams is inculcating a culture of recognition that’s built on frequent feedback. 

6. Take swift action against those taking undue advantage

If you feel that all the previous 5 suggestions are skewed towards employees and not the employer, you’re right. However, the company is its employees first and foremost. By addressing the core issues preventing them from observing solid attendance, the problem for managers is often solved.

Having said that, however, it’s important to take action against those employees who take undue advantage of the company’s policy. Inability to do so could jeopardize the entire policy and hurt those who were adhering to it responsibly. A constructive absence management policy requires trust between the company and its employees. 

For example, if you find out that an employee has lied about taking sick leave (going to a job interview instead as an example), that should be addressed promptly with an official written warning.