Costing Australia over $32.5 billion per year, workplace absenteeism is not something to be taken lightly. It is extremely destructive, both financially and in regards to workplace morale and productivity, and the ARA Telephone Advisory Service receives hundreds of calls every year from retailers who are suffering from its effects.
What is absenteeism?
It’s more than just an absence from work – we all have those. Permanent employees accrue annual and personal/carer’s leave, and casuals can refuse work whenever they want. Absenteeism goes beyond this, and relates to a habitual pattern of absences which starts to impact upon their work, their colleagues, and your business.
Absenteeism includes those frustratingly long absences where employees have entire days, weeks or months off work, but it can also include the more subtle pattern of absences, such as frequent late starts, early finishes, or even taking lunch breaks which are longer than authorised.
What should I do?
It is important to have a timekeeping system in place which accurately records the working hours of all employees in your business so that you track absence habits. This may be done through a timesheet, a clocking in/out system, or a fingerprint scanner device. Another way of identifying absences may be through a centralised manager who has oversight over all his employees’ comings and goings.
Once you have detected a pattern of absences, such as an employee who leaves early every Tuesday or calls in sick the moment he has accrued enough leave, or seems to never be fit for work on the day after a long weekend, the first step is to talk to the individual in question. Tell them that you’ve noticed a pattern in their absences from work, and were wondering if you could help with anything. Do they want to talk about it? Is there anything you can do?
It sounds simple, but you can sometimes resolve the matter without needing to escalate it further, and that’s worth the time it takes to have a quick conversation. At the least, it can often give you more information as to the reason behind the absences so that you can formulate a strategy for addressing them.
What if this doesn’t work?
The Fair Work Act 2009 imposes a protection on employees who are temporarily absent from work because of illness or injury. It is unlawful to terminate employment (or take other ‘adverse action’) because an employee has taken leave, regardless of whether it is paid or not.
Therefore, any action you take has to be for a lawful reason, such as disciplining an employee who breaches your policies by texting in sick when they were required to call, or failing to provide a medical certificate when asked.
We recommend directing frequently absent employees to provide medical certificates for each absence. It’s your right to do so, and means that calling in sick suddenly got a whole lot harder.
Eliminating the causes
The most effective approach to eliminating absenteeism is to eradicate the reasons behind it. That employee who leaves early every Tuesday? Turns out it’s because he has to pick his kids up from school and there’s no other childcare options available to him. Maybe you could offer flexible working arrangements so he can come in early that day and still work his required hours. What about the employee who takes sick leave as soon as it’s accrued? He’s being bullied and can’t stand to come to work more than he has to. Let’s instigate a grievance and investigation process and eliminate the bullying.
Take home points
Absenteeism is a tricky problem to manage – it’s varied, fraught with risk, and often leads to unwanted confrontation. But ignoring it can be fatal to your business.
Remember you’re not alone in this - call the ARA Employment Relations Team on 1300 368 041 for assistance with identifying, addressing or recovering from workplace absenteeism.