What is really behind absence levels in your team?

Plenty of food for thought in a recent Cezanne HR survey, which shows that as many as one in four employees have ‘pulled a sickie’ in the last two years.

Nearly half of the 500 workers questioned for the research said they had considered faking illness in order to get time off work – with one in 14 confessing to have done it three or more times. Young people were more likely to pull sickies than their older colleagues, while women were only marginally more likely than men to have used illness as an excuse for not going to work.

Interestingly, when asked whether they felt it was acceptable to pull a sickie, 60 per cent said never, regardless of the circumstances – although it hadn’t stopped 15 per cent of them doing it anyway.

The findings are clearly not good news for business. Empty chairs are both costly and disruptive, not to mention the resentment it can cause among colleagues who have to pick up the pieces for fellow workers who they suspect are not genuinely ill.

HR software can of course do much to help employers track overall absence levels in their business, identify trends or highlight serial offenders. But the data doesn’t answer the key question – which is why people feel they can’t be honest about the reasons they are not coming into work.

Getting employees to fess up to the real reasons why they are off work isn’t easy – but it would certainly be fascinating for any employer to have a breakdown of the genuine causes.

How much short-term absence, for example, is down to people being so disengaged with their job that they simply can’t face dragging themselves out from under the duvet? Are poor relationships at work, or a bullying manager, behind their reluctance to tip up to work without fail – or are they stressed and unable to cope with all the demands being placed on them?

There is also the hidden issue of employees with caring responsibilities taking time off ‘ill’ because their childcare arrangements have broken down or because an elderly relative is poorly or needs taking to a medical appointment.

People often feel they can’t be up front about these issues in case managers feel they are not able to cope with the job, will put them first in line if redundancies are on the horizon or will pass them over for promotion because they fear they will be unreliable.

What this all comes down to really is that much of the way employees behave when it comes to taking time off work is influenced by the culture they are working in.

If a company has an open and supportive atmosphere, an employee is much more likely to seek help or advice if they are struggling with a workplace relationship or finding the pressure too much to bear. If managers are sympathetic and supportive, those with caring responsibilities are more likely to be up front about the fact they have an emergency, and can work with their manager to find a way they can work from home, swap shifts with a colleague or make the time up.

It’s about companies encouraging a more compassionate approach to managing people. That’s not about being soft or a walk-over – if people are abusing the system and taking time off because they think they can get away with it, the situation needs to be dealt with.

But it is about recognising that work and personal life is inter-twined and people cannot always leave the personal stuff at home when they walk in through the door. Someone who is worried about whether an elderly relative is safe, anxious because their child is poorly or feels they have no-one to talk to about a difficult work situation is not going to have their mind on the job and won’t be performing at their best.

Managers who make it easy for people to take off their ‘show face’ and admit that they need a bit of leeway or support are much more likely to win the trust and respect of their people and get the best out of their teams.

One action to take this week: Encourage your managers to hold up a mirror. Is their leadership style getting the best out of people and fostering an open, trusting culture?

See the infographic here

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You may be interested in reading: How flexible working can help your business reduce absence 

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