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You can't manage absenteeism, right?


In its 2017 Absence Management & Wellbeing Survey, Australian company Direct Health Solutions reported that employee absenteeism costs employers $33 billion annually. According to the survey, absenteeism had increased on average to 9.7 days per employee per year. Expense is incurred in a number of ways: the cost of the paid leave itself, the cost of covering absences by using temporary staff or paying overtime to existing workers, and the resultant decreased productivity and impacts on staff morale and service delivery.

On the surface one might say that 9.7 days per employee per year is fine – it is under the 10 days’ entitlement isn’t it? However, the data is averaged across all employees including those who hardly take any sick leave. Believe it or not, the worst I have seen are individuals that have been taking up to 50 days off year before the issue has been managed. Worse still, is seeing excuses such as ‘my car broke down and I couldn’t get to work’ by those with excessive absenteeism and this being processed as paid sick leave!

There is no doubt that the challenges of life and work can be hard to balance and employers do need to take into consideration the management of the ‘whole of person’, being sympathetic and actively supportive of the challenges that employees face from time to time and providing some breathing space when needed.

But when entitlements are being exploited, it doesn’t mean that employers have to accept this. Most importantly, absenteeism should be treated as an underperformance concern. The focus should be on demonstrating how absenteeism affects service delivery, team morale and workloads for those who do turn up to faithfully. I cringe when I hear, “The absenteeism is not good but when he/she is here, he/she does such a great job”.

Definition of Absenteeism

By definition, absenteeism refers to non-attendance at work without valid reason. It doesn’t include occasional absence due to genuine emergency situations or sickness. Some examples of absenteeism include:

· large numbers of personal sickness or carer days per year

· systematic patterns of absence

· frequently leaving work early or arriving late

· taking excessively-long breaks

In Australia, the National Employment Standards guide the minimum entitlements around leave including personal/carer’s leave, annual leave, compassionate leave, family and domestic violence leave, community service leave, parental leave and long service leave. Absenteeism can arise through any of these leave types, although usually the focus is placed on sick/carer’s leave.

Causes of Absenteeism

There is nothing wrong with an employee taking a reasonable amount of unplanned leave when it is needed, but it is a real business issue when employees are persistently absent.

When someone calls in sick it doesn’t necessarily mean they are ill. Make no mistake that a high level of absenteeism is an indicator of issues which may be caused through or by the workplace, or may be due to personal factors, or both. Workplace issues may include being demotivated, poor teamwork, radical change, poor leadership, role confusion, poor communication, lack of respect, bullying, a negative culture or unreasonable workloads.

Personal issues causing absenteeism may be related to mental and physical health, carer responsibilities, childcare challenges, FIFO partners, domestic violence or just the fast pace of life which gets to most people at some time or other. What might initially be absence for the sake of avoiding the workplace can quickly escalate into illness and depression that genuinely prevent an individual from working.

Absenteeism can also arise through ineffective management of leave. In my experience this usually happens due to the employer’s lack of understanding of the conditions which apply to taking leave. This affects Managers’ confidence in managing absenteeism or talking about the issue with the individual for fear that it will become an industrial issue.

Culture of Entitlement

I believe that because many countries don’t actually classify sick leave as an entitlement, employees may see their 10 days’ per year as guaranteed rather than a fall back when ill or injured.

Yet there are individuals who do abuse sick/carer’s leave. We’ve all seen employees who take their sick leave as soon as it accrues, who avoid Mondays’ or give notice of resignation and then work it out as sick leave. Added to this, the union agenda seeks to include terms in Enterprise Agreements that provide for the payout of unused sickness entitlement as a reward for not taking it.

Sick/Carer’s Leave

The biggest misconception around is that Personal and Carer’s leave are two separate entitlements of leave, or that they are different entitlements to ‘Sick Leave’. It hasn’t helped that the terminology has changed so much over the years… but here’s the low-down:

  • Sick/Carer’s leave is one class of leave entitlement of 10 days per year which can either be taken as personal sickness or carer’s leave;

  • Leave accrues from 0 - 10 days per annum (or 0.8333 of a day per month);

  • Sick/Carer’s leave doesn’t accrue when an employee is on unpaid annual, sick/carer’s, parental or unpaid family and domestic violence leave;

  • When taken as paid sick leave this is where the employee is unfit for work because of their own personal illness or injury;

  • When taken as carer’s leave, it is taken to provide care or support to a member of the employee’s immediate family or household, because of a personal illness, injury or unexpected emergency affecting the member;

  • A member of the employee’s immediate family means a spouse, de facto partner, child, parent, grandparent, grandchild or sibling of an employee; or a child, parent, grandparent, grandchild or sibling of the employee’s spouse or de facto partner;

  • Any balance of unused leave rolls over each year until cessation of the employee;

  • If an employee exhausts their entitlement to paid sick leave, they can access unpaid leave or annual leave by agreement with the employer;

  • If an employee exhausts their entitlement to paid sick/carer’s leave they can access 2 days unpaid carer’s leave each time an immediate family member or household member needs care and support because of an illness, injury or unexpected emergency. Notification requirements and evidence requirements should be applied;

  • Casual employees have a legitimate right to be absent due to unpaid carer’s leave, unpaid family and domestic violence leave and unpaid compassionate leave;

  • Employees may only cash out leave sick/carer’s leave if provided in an industrial agreement and handled in accordance with Fair Work Australia guidelines;

  • Notification requirements must be met to be entitled to paid sick/carer’s leave;

  • Know your facts as to who qualifies to request flexible working arrangements and how to manage these, as possible alternatives to absenteeism.

Notification Requirements

Legislation states that employees must let their employer know that they are going to take sick or carer’s leave. This has to be done as soon as possible, and can be after the leave has started (which could occur in an emergency situation). They should also specify how long they will be off or expect to be off work.

If an employee does not meet these notification requirements then they are not entitled to the paid leave. But does the employee know how and when to notify?

An employer can ask an employee to provide evidence that shows the employee took the leave. Evidence can be requested for as little as one day or less off work. Awards and Enterprise Agreements may also stipulate how notice is given.

So let’s have a look at some things that employers can do about managing absenteeism.

Policies and Systems

· Ensure there is a system for recording absences and that this is managed and monitored to identify patterns and problems.

· Check timesheets for correct leave allocation and query incorrect allocation.

· As part of the reference check for new employees, ask about their attendance

· Have a clear policy that outlines the Company’s expectations of its employees including guidelines about how employees should notify of absence.

· Actively manage medical appointments during worktime.


· Ensure that team leaders and people managers are trained in how to recognise and appropriately manage absenteeism.

· Learn how to identify patterns of absenteeism.

· Have conversations with individuals, outlining the impact it has on the workplace and teams and their overall performance and set clear expectations.

Take Action

· Act, don’t turn a blind eye because it is too difficult.

· Once the cause of absenteeism is identified and initial conversation had outlining expectations, disciplinary action can follow to achieve improved performance.

· If it’s due to carer responsibilities, can flexible working arrangements or part time hours be agreed?

· If the employer is aware that the cause is stress resulting from heavy workloads, consider how this might be managed proactively and prior to the symptoms of absenteeism, workplace grievances and injuries occurring.

· Take action with professional guidance to instigate fitness for duty processes where employees appear unable to carry out the inherent requirements of the role.

· Ensure that any action taken is managed in a fair, reasonable and timely manner which does not lead to adverse action or bullying claims.

Workplace Culture

· Dedicate attention to the culture of the workplace, measuring levels of satisfaction and areas for improvement to ensure it is a positive culture and a place where employees want to come to work.

· Accept that sometimes people are just in the wrong job or wrong company and look at job redesign, job fit, changes to working arrangements etc.. And remember a good recruitment process and probation process should have picked this up already.

Further Assistance and Advice

I have carried out many customised training sessions for all tiers of leaders, explaining the entitlement framework and guiding participants through the effective management of absenteeism and tailoring solutions to specific issues presented.

I have also adopted a diverse approach to managing the issue of absenteeism: - working with business to improve workplace culture, leadership skills, system implementation, correct recruitment and ultimately eliminating individual situations of absenteeism through the implementation of Performance Improvement Plans and/or Fitness for Duty Assessments. I have achieved absenteeism drop from 25% - 3%.

For more information on managing employee absenteeism and any particular challenges that I might be able to assist you with, please contact me.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is intended to provide helpful information on the subject discussed. The information shared is not meant to be used, nor should it be used without professional advice being given to individual situations. The author is not responsible or liable for damages or consequences for any treatment or action taken as a result of reading this blog. References are provided for information purposes only.

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