Are you unintentionally losing $347 per work day every time an employee calls in a ‘sickie’? According to a 2015 absenteeism survey, Direct Health Solutions reported that’s exactly what employers pay on average for a workplace absence. The absenteeism trends surveyed in Australia are pointing to an alarming excess of over $32.5 billion per annum for our national economy in terms of payroll and lost productivity costs.


Whilst it is important to acknowledge that every employee is entitled to leaves of absences such as personal (sick) leave, carer’s leave, and compassionate leave in accordance with the National Employment Standards (NES) contained in the Fair Work Act 2009 (the Act), there is an obligation on employees not to abuse these rights. However, if left undetected, abuse of these rights unfortunately fall into the lap of employers … and hit their bottom lines harder than they may realise.

It should be noted that the employer maintains the right to ask for evidence of personal leave taken in accordance with Section 107 of the Act, should they suspect that the leave was not taken for a legitimate purpose. It is important that this be articulated in any leave policy so that all parties are aware that such a request may be made.

What steps will you take to reduce the cost of employee absences?


Peter Schmarr, one of iHR Australia’s Senior Workplace Relations Advisors, highlights four key things that employers can do to pro-actively manage absenteeism in the workplace:


1. Track employee absences.
This is the first most important step. Without proper records, you can’t monitor or analyse trends and it’s all too easy for employees to abuse their personal leave or exceed their entitled approved absence days. “Start keeping track of employee absences in order to detect suspicious patterns such as high frequencies of absences on a Monday or Friday or on days before a public holiday”, advises Peter. Being able to detect a recurring pattern or surge in absences can help you to deal with the problem sooner rather than later. Not only will accurate and timely records help your organisation to measure the true cost of employee absences but it will also reduce any prolonged abuse of paid personal leave time.


2. Help employees return to work.
“Monitor their leave and when you see a trend, deal with it quickly”, Peter is quick to emphasise this point, having been involved in his fair share of investigations into absenteeism and other workplace issues in the last 36 years.

Whilst there is limited research on Australian employers, a QBE survey indicated 64% of UK employers aren’t doing anything to help their employees return to work after a health-related absence.
Absences due to illnesses or injuries which can’t be self-managed by employees may make returning to work difficult for them. The key is to ensure that those employees who need support can access help quickly.

Employers should offer such employees the necessary assistance to transition smoothly back to work; keeping in mind their rights to prevailing provisions under any other awards or agreements, if applicable. This could mean a number of things but it needs to begin with a conversation with the employee to understand the factors behind their absence. You can make modifications to the workplace to suit an employee who is struggling with an illness, injury or disability. Perhaps the employee needs the option to telecommute or have either reduced work hours or increased flexibility in work schedules for an agreed period to assist.


3. Articulate absenteeism clearly in your Policies & Procedures.
Peter notes that many organisations have no policy or direction on how to deal with absenteeism. Peter has worked with a number of employers to articulate this in their personal leave policies.
Without a well-documented HR policy and procedure on leave provisions, unexpected and higher rates of absenteeism may persist until it becomes and gets addressed as a performance management issue; the consequences of which are financially harsher and more severe. Clearly documented leave policies and having a well-defined process in place to handle absenteeism can dramatically curb repeat absenteeism “offenders” and even provide employees with a better understanding of their rights to assistance. The benefit of clearly articulated policies is that it can be as specific as the organisation needs it to be to avoid any abuse or misinterpretation of entitlements. For instance clarifying what happens if employees arrive late or leave work early or take excessive leave.


4. Have that courageous conversation.
No one likes to be the one to have that difficult conversation with an employee about their absences. However, Peter agrees that while difficult, it is more important to ‘have the talk early on to find the reasons why it’s happening, rather than waiting until you have to deal with it as a performance management issue’.

Absenteeism tends to happen when employees are unhappy either at home or in the workplace and there could be a myriad of reasons for this. They could be taking time off because they’ve been bullied or harassed at work, or been subject to domestic violence at home. Not many people realise that under changes to the Flexible Working Arrangements in the NES under the Act, if an employee’s absence is due to domestic violence, it is within their rights to request for flexible working hours. That’s why it’s important to get to the bottom of it immediately in a sensitive and sympathetic manner, as sometimes the reasons can be embarrassing or humiliating for the employee to reveal.


iHR Australia believes employee absences can heavily impact an organisation’s revenue and productivity and can assist to prevent unexpected absences with its HR policies and procedures services. Our team of expert workplace advisors can assist your organisation to articulate its leave provision and return to work objectives into a well-documented policy and formalise absence mediation strategies that work for your workplace. For the confidence and skills to conduct appropriate discussions in a conflict-ridden situation at work and achieve positive results, iHR’s Professional and Courageous Conversations training can equip your leadership staff to get to the underlying reasons behind employee absenteeism in a fair and caring manner.

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