How to... Manage Absenteeism

Posted in : How To... with Dr. Gerry McMahon on 20 December 2017
Dr. Gerry McMahon
Productive Personnel Ltd
Issues covered:

According to the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC), absenteeism costs employers in Ireland around €1.5 bn. per annum. The Small Firms Association puts the cost at €490m. per annum, warning however that by factoring in indirect costs, the bill could be closer to €1bn. Across the Irish public sector, it is estimated that the annual cost runs to about €500m.  However, since paid sick leave provisions in the sector were halved in 2014, ‘significant savings’ have been achieved, as the rate across the public service recently fell below 4% for the first time, with the annual cost thereof dropping by more than €100m.

The indicators suggest that one-day absences are most frequent (i.e. Mondays and Fridays). Young workers (especially for short term absences), older workers (especially for longer term absences) and women (especially single  mothers) appear to be the greatest offenders, whilst the public sector and large organisations with big work groups default more than the private sector and small organisations and work groups. It also seems that professional and senior staff have better attendance records than their colleagues. Most employers believe that not all absenteeism is genuine, which may be substantiated by evidence that the absence of sick pay schemes is associated with superior attendance levels.

Menu For Managing Absenteeism

There are a range of practical prescriptions available to employers for the effective management of absenteeism. These start from the premise that the employer is taking the problem seriously and committing to proactively managing the matter. The menu of prescriptions includes:

  • According primary responsibility for absenteeism to line management.
  • Having appropriate absenteeism procedures in place and used consistently.
  • Ensuring ‘Return-To-Work’ interviews are conducted and recorded.
  • Training management\supervisors\team leaders in People Mgt.\ interpersonal skills.
  • Availing of the services of a doctor\occupational health professional.
  • Having an effective recording system in place and using it consistently.
  • Enabling the recording system to review data by cause and comparing certified absence with uncertified absence and recording data by employee, employee category, dept., shift, season and area.
  • Setting an absenteeism target (e.g. 3%) and devising an action plan for when this target is missed.
  • Ensuring availability of an Employee Assistance Programme.
  • Having a policy of and using a ‘Keep In Touch’\Welfare visit system.
  • Reviewing the sick pay scheme (incl. the self-certification system and documentation).
  • Linking attendance to the performance management system.
  • Using the disciplinary procedure (incl. insertion of ‘triggers’ for usage).
  • Ensuring progressive H.R. policies and practices (e.g. reference checks, performance management) and good working conditions are in place.
  • Providing good leave terms (incl. short-term short notice arrangements).
  • Considering workplace and\or work pattern adjustment facilities.
  • Being open to ‘Return-To-Work’ plans (incl. redeployment).
  • Considering devising an attendance bonus (i.e. ‘Be In To Win’ schemes).
  • Conducting a cost-benefit analysis for the provision of a crèche facility.
  • Conducting a cost-benefit analysis for the provision of a health education (or ‘Wellness At Work’) programme.

The Best Option

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, ‘Return-To-Work’ interviews are the most effective approach to tackling short-term absence across all sectors and are the most commonly used approach for managing long-term absence. In this regard it is notable that IBEC recommend a ‘sympathetic, co-operative and open-minded’ approach to such interviews. That is, if conducted in a disciplinary fashion these interactions can be counter-productive, contributing to a low trust culture with all of its associated ills.

This prescription raises three pertinent questions: (i) what exactly is the purpose of such a ‘return’ or ‘welcome back-to-work’ meeting and (ii) when and (iii) how should it be conducted.

The Meeting’s Purpose

In response to the first query - what is the purpose of such a meeting - IBEC cut to the chase when advising that it ‘may act as a deterrent for non-attendance on foot of disingenuous reasons’. Of course these meetings or interventions also serve to clearly signal to employees that their absence was noticed and that they were missed.

Hence, in response to the second query, ‘best practice’ recommends that they should be convened immediately upon the employee’s return to work. Accordingly, this approach can help demonstrate that absence is a high priority for the employer and that stated policies in this area are actually being put into practice on a consistent basis. Allied to the legitimate goal of reducing absenteeism levels, the key reasons for conducting such ‘return-to-work’ interviews are to identify the cause of the absence and to provide an opportunity to explore any particular problems the employee may have. This prompts consideration of the third query – how the meeting should be conducted.

Be W.A.R.M.

The key here is helping staff to feel that they can trust the employer or line manager sufficiently to admit the real cause of absence. Of course, such ‘trust’ does not appear overnight - but is a reflection of the quality of the staff member’s ongoing relationship with their line manager. Reflecting the ‘W.A.R.M.’ approach to the process, at the ‘Welcome Back To Work’ meeting it is recommended that the following steps be taken:

  • W. welcome - welcome them back; tell them they were missed.
  • A.  absence - discuss the absence; are they fit to return? For example, if it’s part of a pattern, the manager may benefit from inquiring about issues that the employee may have which are contributing to the absenteeism. This may prompt consideration of a disability vis-à-vis the equality legislation or even invoking of the disciplinary procedure.
  • R. responsibility - explain that being absent means they have a problem; talk about how they are going to solve it.  One might also explore the effect of the absence on work colleagues (e.g. what arrangements were in place during the absence, changes at work that may have transpired during the absence).
  • M. move on - focus on getting back to work; update on developments in their absence (e.g. new priorities), end on an upbeat note.

Of course not all line managers will be taken into confidence by troubled staff members. Lack of trust is a significant factor in this ‘shut-out’. However, assistance can be rendered to the afflicted employee (and ultimately the organisation), by posing of two basic questions:

  1. Do you want to talk about it?
  2. Can I or the organisation help in any way?

In the event that the response to the first question is ‘YES’, it behoves the interviewer to (do no more than) listen actively and empathetically, whilst an affirmative response to the second question may have implications for work time arrangements or access to an Employee Assistance Programme. The more adept (and professionally trained) interviewers will be familiar with the role played in these sensitive (and consequential) interactions by the appropriate deployment of such ‘soft skill’ techniques as rapport, positive feedback, tone, eye contact, silence, active listening and upward feedback. Related thereto, the meeting should not be an exercise in castigation.

In summary, return-to-work interviews provide line managers with an opportunity to start a dialogue with staff about underlying issues which might be causing the absence, so that they can be addressed before they escalate. They also provide an opportunity to discuss with the employee whether they require any support or assistance to reduce their levels of absenteeism or, indeed, in returning to work after an illness.

Given the potential of such meetings, to ensure their effectiveness, it is important that line managers be trained in how to conduct them and that they are convened by managers after every instance of absence. This approach sends a clear message that the organisation takes absence seriously and displays a commitment to the effective management of absenteeism.

This article is correct at 20/12/2017

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Dr. Gerry McMahon
Productive Personnel Ltd

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