A better way to manage absenteeism

Past approaches to managing absenteeism have met with only limited success, but there are better ways by validating the learning from projects that have been successful to inform new approaches, writes Denis Doherty.

Denis Doherty
Denis Doherty

Credit where it’s due! Reliable, comparative data on absenteeism from work in Ireland is difficult to come by. The HSE is a notable exception. Absenteeism rates, by year and over time, are reported prominently in its Annual Reports. There, the good news tapers off. After steady improvements in 2009 and 2010, the 2010 rate of 4.70% has not been bettered since. The 2013 figure of 4.73% is roughly equivalent to every employee being absent for 11 days that year. ‘Presenteeism’ – employees reporting for work when ill – is a growing problem for which reliable data is not available but may be as much as 50% greater than absenteeism, according to some best estimates for the UK.

In the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, in partnership with simplyhealth, conduct an annual survey of the public and private sectors and report their findings. The trend there is not dissimilar to the experience of the HSE with rates in 2013 moving back up towards 2011 levels. Absenteeism in 2013 was running at an average of 8.7 days per employee in the public sector and 7.6 days per employee in the private sector.


Work related stress and mental illness are growing problems in public sector employments in the UK. They appear to be here also. The main reasons given seem familiar too – workload, management style and organisational changes/restructuring. Musculoskeletal injuries feature prominently as well.

The main reasons given seem familiar too – workload, management style and organisational changes/restructuring. Musculoskeletal injuries feature prominently as well.

In the UK, two thirds of absences are of less than seven days duration. In 2009, a report by the C&AG found that 9% of all days lost in the public sector here was attributable to uncertified sick leave. Short-term absences tend to be of the colds, flu, stomach upsets, headaches and migraines variety.

Absenteeism – close to 5% in the HSE – is significant for those who make up that figure, for their colleagues whose workloads are increased by their absence, for service users on waiting lists caused by staff shortages and by the employer who suffers an opportunity cost, caused by staff absences, as well as the extra cost associated with employing agency staff to plug gaps that have to be filled. It has long been accepted that many health service employees are vocationally motivated. They are at greater risk of contributing to the ‘presenteeism’ problem by virtue of their strong vocational commitment.

In the UK survey, there are references, almost in passing, to absences caused by family obligations and the like. In the C&AG report, referred to earlier, it was reported that females, in the public sector in Ireland, take 14 days uncertified sick leave and that males take eight days. Surely the underlying issues involved here ought to be considered and addressed. It is hardly surprising that in a predominantly female work force, many of whom work unsocial hours and have child rearing responsibilities, balancing work commitments and family obligations will result in a level of unavoidable absenteeism. Given that this issue also contributes to recruitment difficulties, there must be a better way of organising leave entitlements of all kinds to enable employees to achieve a better work/home balance and reduce absenteeism.

Public sector employers tend to invest more than their private sector counterparts in areas that contribute to staff health and wellbeing. They include measuring absenteeism, designing jobs to be interesting and challenging, providing stress management training, providing training for managers in how to manage absenteeism, occupational health schemes and the like. That approach might suggest that absenteeism in the public sector ought to be lower than in the private sector, but the opposite is the case.

It is difficult to understand why that should be so, but it is possible to point to a number of differences between the two sectors that may be contributors. A process driven approach, more practised in the public sector, is often less effective than a results driven approach, more practised in the private sector. Sick leave financial entitlements are more favorable in the public sector and may be a factor. Long-term absences are less amenable to being managed by the employee and are less susceptible to abuse if actively managed.

In the private sector, short-term absences and long-term absences tend to be viewed differently; they are often managed differently and by managers at different levels. In the case of short-term absences, the emphasis is placed on identifying patterns, causes, triggers and, by understanding underlying reasons, finding ways of reducing days lost.

Where long-term absences are concerned, it may be possible to learn from the way acute care is delivered in hospitals. Attitudes and practices have changed in ways that have greatly shortened the length of time patients spend in hospital. Where absence from work, due to illness, is concerned ‘lengths of stay’ are not improving and may indeed be worsening! In the UK, a new system of ‘fit notes’ issued by GPs was introduced but, three years on, only 7% of those surveyed believe it is working and 75% think it is not being used effectively by GPs. Occupational Health departments, GPs, HR practitioners, occupational psychologists and employers are the potential change agents, who collectively possess the ability to replace the present conservative approach to one based on timely and well managed approaches that minimise ‘lengths of stay at home’ in the best interest of employees.

Past approaches to managing absenteeism have met with only limited success. There are better ways. Why not seek to validate the learning from projects that have been successful to inform new approaches. The prevailing defeatist attitude, that high rates of absenteeism are not amenable to improvement, can be changed. It is in the interest of the long suffering taxpayer and the health and wellbeing of employees that new, creative, well informed and results driven methods are tried.