How to Catch a Truant: The Challenge of Absenteeism for Business Leaders

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Absent. AWOL. Playing hooky. Missing. No-show. French Leave. Truant. No matter what you call it, workplace absenteeism is an important issue and major challenge for any business leader. While a missing employee may be merely a blip on the radar for a large corporation, it nevertheless may reinforce a certain, unproductive office culture that ends up costing the company in the long run. The cost is even higher for small businesses – if a business owner with ten employees finds one of them missing, the company is out 10% of its producing power. It is situations like this that make it clear that absenteeism is more than just “necessary evil” in company culture. This is a challenge that must be addressed at its roots.

Absenteeism traditionally has been seen as an indication of poor individual performance or, at the very least, a violation of the implicit contract between an employee and employer. It was viewed in more economic terms – as a management problem that must be solved for quasi-economic reasons. However, more recent and contemporary scholarship takes the issue of absenteeism to its roots. It seeks to address absenteeism as an indication of psychological, medical, and social misadjustment to the work-life or work environment (Johns, 2007). This is exactly what this paper seeks to do. By approaching absenteeism as more of a social issue that begs for a collaborative response and conclusion, the paper proposes two potential solutions to the problem: promoting in-office wellness, and rewarding results rather than attendance.

There may be many reasons for employees simply not showing up to work; however, this variety of justifications may also be boiled down to two simple factors. According to de Boer, Bakker, Syroit, and Schaufeli (2012) there are only two main sources of absenteeism: a withdrawal from aversive work conditions, and stress from the work situation (p. 182). An employee may feel pressure from his or her employer, unsupported by his or her coworkers, and just generally not enjoy the work environment that much at all. Similarly, an employee may simply feel stressed with the workload, work type, or work situation. Very simply, an employee does not go to work either because they do not want to (stressed situation) or because they do not want to (aversive work conditions).

By boiling down the reasons for absenteeism to these two simple types, it becomes clearer what some of the potential solutions should be. They should start by addressing the work environment, and the way work is loaded onto employees. Addressing these two issues would potentially solve the root problems found underneath absenteeism. Implementing these solutions may be difficult, but it can be argued that it is most definitely worth it. In the words of de Boer, et al., solutions may “require a serious effort from superiors. However, it will eventually be profitable for organizations since this increases the chance of reducing absence which can be a very costly problem for employers” (2012, p. 195). The best way to solve the economic and financial issues that are associated with absenteeism is to not treat absenteeism as a financial problem in and of itself. Instead, employers, managers, and superiors must turn their attention to the abovementioned issues by implementing the below-mentioned solutions.

One of the most important ways to solve stress as a factor of absenteeism is to counteract it with healthy office culture. This will take away employees inability to come to work because of a stressful environment. Why is employee wellness so important? For a start, it is quite clear that the alternative is an unhappy workforce. While some of this may have to do with outside factors, it is an obvious argument to make that a good portion of individuals’ lives are spent in their work environment – why not start health and wellness initiatives there? Doing so is a good place to start in relieving the stress that plagues employee attendance.

At the very basic level, employers ought to provide exercise equipment and allow for breaks to actually use this equipment. Doing so breaks up the monotony of an eight-to-five day, and thereby can increase employee productivity while at the same time relieving tension and stress. Second, employers ought to encourage employees to really stay at home when they really are sick. This will not only avoid spreading sickness (and therefore creating more costly sick days) but also make it clear to employees that a sick day is not some sneaky endeavor to be used at random. Finally, employers must turn their attention to their office environment. Solving this will solve the issue of employees simply not wanting to come to work (because of aversive work environments, as mentioned above). Creating a space for productive, collaborative, and non-stress-induced work will raise the health of the employee, increase their productivity, and decrease their desire to stay home on Mondays. Investing serious effort (and some budget) into making the workplace an enjoyable place to be will, in the long run, solve an employers’ problem of absenteeism.

The second potential solution is concerned with independence. It is a growing theory that a structure where employees must ask their managers for permission regarding their schedule is completely outdated (Hanebuth, 2008). While many employers have already implemented flexible work practices to increase productivity, Thompson argues that we must break out of this mold altogether. Instead, managers and employers should adopt a “results only” strategy toward work (Hanebuth, 2008). This offers employees both 100% autonomy in their work and 100% accountability to their productivity.

This means that employees can simply be concerned with the work they have to get done in a certain amount of time, and employers are managing work, not people. Employees know that if they get their work done they maintain good rapport and, if they do not, they are out of a job. In turn, employers have firm deadlines and schedules around which they can rely on consistent work. This ultimately allows employees to manage their own schedule (like adults are apt to do), getting rid of the potential of absenteeism due either to stress or an aversive environment at work. The consistency and accuracy provided by this strategy is perhaps the best solution to absenteeism – it simply will not be something employers have to worry about, because it is not part of the job description.

While absenteeism is a costly issue for companies and employers, the solution ought to come outside of financial considerations. Instead, employers ought to first consider their office environment and their employees’ needs. These are, ostensibly, the major factors that contribute to absenteeism in employees. It is clear that absenteeism is a challenge for business leaders. However, it is equally clear that these leaders have the opportunity to effect change that will aid them in addressing this challenge. Making these changes will ultimately increase productivity and decrease absenteeism.

References

De Boer, Elpine; Bakker, Arnold; Syroit, Jef; Schaufeli, Wilmar. 2012. Unfairness at work as a predictor of absenteeism. Journal of Organizational Behavior 23: (2). http://www.jstor.org/stable/4093730

Hanebuth, Dirk. 2008. Background of absenteeism in K. Heinitz (ed.) Psychology in Organizations - Issues from an applied area. Peter Lang: Frankfurt. p. 115-134.

Johns, Gary. 2007. Absenteeism. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell Publishing.