According to WHO, companies lose around $2,450 USD per employee per year due to absenteeism. Reducing absenteeism in the workplace is critical for every organization, not only in terms of success, but also as a responsibility you have to ensure your employees’ well-being.
The goal of this post is to look at the psychology behind absenteeism and see which strategies we can directly implement to reduce absenteeism in your organization.
Specifically we will take a close look at:
- Voluntary absenteeism, and one of its most influenceable determinants: employee disengagement
- The psychological mechanisms behind employee disengagement
- Strategies that will reduce absenteeism, by promoting employee engagement.
This post is based on over 30 papers on absenteeism, employee disengagement, organizational commitment, and work engagement, pulled from Work- and Organizational Psychology.
Employee absenteeism and disengagement
Before we look at ways to reduce absenteeism, it is always important to refresh on what we actually mean by absenteeism.
Absenteeism typically means not being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there, in our case the workplace. While mental health is an important determinant for absenteeism (and should be a top priority within every company!), we would like to focus on an important related, but less noticed cause, namely employee disengagement.
A poll by Gallup in 2014 found that only a third (31%) of the employees working in the USA, were working with full enthusiasm, and considered themselves engaged with their work. Half of the employees described themselves as “not engaged” (51%), with an additional 17.5% reporting that were “actively disengaged”.
Employee disengagement occurs when employees tend to no longer enjoy their job, causing them to only scrape by, only doing what is necessary, without putting in any extra effort. These employees tend to be easily distracted, work slow, and, most importantly, often take too many days off from work.
Looking at the root of disengagement, we can distill two important underlying components:
- A lack of work engagement and/or
- A lack of organizational commitment
Although they are strongly related, these concepts capture a distinct part of an employee’s relationship with their workplace.
Work engagement is typically deﬁned as a “positive, fulﬁlling work-related state of mind characterized by vigor, dedication and absorption”. Engaged employees tend to:
- exert a high level of energy that allows them to persist in the face of difﬁculties (Vigor),
- show high involvement, taking pride in their work, and showing a lot enthusiasm for it (Dedication),
- and be fully focused on their work so that time appears to pass by quickly (Absorption).
Where work engagement focuses on an employee’s relationship with their job’s tasks, organizational commitment, represents the employee’s relationship with their place of work.
Specifically, employees who are highly committed to their organization tend to:
- have a strong identification with the organization,
- value the sense of membership within it,
- agree with its objectives and value systems,
- are likely to remain in it,
- and are prepared to work hard on its behalf.
To recap, when employees who no longer feel engaged with their job, or no longer feel committed to their organization, they tend to lose their vigor and dedication to their job, which in turn will lead to reduced effort, and a higher level of voluntary absenteeism.
So a good place to start tackling employee disengagement will be to look at strategies that will increase organizational commitment and work-engagement.
So how do we get employees more committed and engaged?
Make your employees feel valued
When going through the run-of-the-mill daily operations, it is easy to forget to appreciate the work that is done by every individual member that keeps the company running.
This holds especially true for big corporations, as the bigger the organization, the higher the chance that an employee may feel like they are just a number. It is therefore not surprising that employees in larger companies, and companies with more hierarchy tend to be more prone to absenteeism.
So what can we do to make our employees feel appreciated?
Well, we can look at this at two levels. The group level, and the individual level.
Group appreciation – At the group level, appreciation takes form as so called appreciation programs. In short, appreciation programs are occasions in which the organization has planned and institutionalized opportunities to praise employees with expressions of positive affirmation.
- Traditional group get-togethers. Think of organizing retirement events, or introductory events for new employees, or even hosting an end of the year bbq in which you commemorate the effort done by your employees.
- Focussing on the whole group (not individuals). These appreciation programs are most likely to foster gratitude when they focus on praising employees and teams for their effort and perseverance. Conversely, research has found that this is least effective when only certain employees are singled out for their performance. Think for instance of rewarding the top sales associate for closing the most deals.
- Investing in employee resources. Another way that might be easily overlooked is to give employees the right tools and resources for the job. It might be tempting to think that you can easily save money on software, hardware, equipment, and even furniture. But investing in the right tools will not only improve your company’s workflow, it will also let your employees know that they are worth the investment.
On an individual level, the strongest way to make an employee feel recognized is to just say thanks. Acknowledge when an employee has stayed longer to work on a project, or set aside work of their own to help a co-worker reach a deadline. Find different ways to make their effort worthwhile. Reward an employee with a half day off, or maybe a free lunch. It doesn’t matter, as long you take the time to thank them for their effort.
Have a look at these suggestions if you need help thinking of creative ways to give praise your employees.
Actively engage your employees in the day-to-day operations
Building on appreciation, it is important to make your employees feel that their opinions and experience matters.
This means that it is important to keep your employees in the loop on the current events in the organization, and asking for input on problems.
Besides potentially getting a different perspective on the situation at hand, this will also allow your employees to feel responsible for the solution, increasing their commitment to the cause.
To engage them:
- Listen – Hold a weekly (or monthly) meeting that allows your employees to share their input.
- Respond – It is important to not only listen, but also actively respond. Make the employees feel like they are being heard. Act on good suggestions, and reward employees for coming up with good ideas.
- Show employees how they fit into the bigger organization – Make new employees feel important and committed from the get-go, by showing them how they fit into the workings of the company’s product. Show them the inner workings of the operation, from start to finish. Let them know how the products are produced, marketed and sold. If possible let them talk directly with the customers to see what impact the product has on those who use it.
Concretely, ensure that the employees know how they fit in the organization, and that their work and knowledge is essential in reaching the company’s goal.
Depart from strict predefined job descriptions and allow employees freedom to “job craft.”
A good way to increase an employee’s dedication to their job is to let them capitalize on what they are good at. Drawing from the concept of Job Crafting, the idea is to look beyond the fixed function roles and determine tasks that benefit the employee’s skills.
For example, if a sales representative in your team enjoys being socially active, you can assign them to manage in-office communications. If an accountant in your team excels in certain analyses, you can let them train colleagues and new employees.
The goal is to find a skill that the employee enjoys to do and that will benefit the day-to-day running of the organization.
Allowing employees freedom on how to fill-out their work tasks not only helps combat employee disengagement, it also seems to have a direct impact on absenteeism, as data shows that employees take fewer sick days when they are able to control their work tasks.
So how do you go about helping employees craft their jobs to fit their talents?
First and foremost, job crafting should not be forced upon your employees. The drive has to come from themselves, as they know best what will, and will not, be beneficial for their own performance. Your job is simply to provide them some flexibility to craft.
Secondly, depending on the composition of your department, it is important to determine to what extent job crafting can fit the entire team. While it is ideal for increasing individual job satisfaction and loyalty, it should not come at the expense of the entire team. Therefore, if you will be working with a team, it is best to consider possibilities on a team level.
This means you need to determine:
- the goal of your team (i.e. what the group needs to accomplish),
- what your team needs to do to accomplish it (i.e. the essential operations), and
- how each member contributes to accomplish this goal (i.e. individual talents and skills).
Once you have this clear you can engage with your team and see where individual member skills and passions lie, and see where opportunities of specialization can arise.
Depending on your budget, it might be a good idea to start small (i.e. changes that do not require additional training). Consider giving older experienced employees the opportunity to be mentors for newcomers, or divvying up tasks within a team based on employee skills or preferences.
Lastly, it is important to be attentive of the skills of your employees. What skills do they excel at? Are they aware of their skills? It is good to reflect this back upon the employees. Not only will this come over as a sign of appreciation, it may also make them aware of their own strengths.
Focus on job security and development rather than high wages
Although ensuring an employee’s job may not always be in our control, when possible focus spending on career development, rather than pay increase.
This counterintuitive suggestion draws from psychological contract theory. Contracts that are focused around high wages (i.e. transactional contracts) tend to be related to lower levels of organizational commitment, job satisfaction, and intentions to stay with the company, than contracts that are focussed around development and job security (i.e. relational contracts).
Indeed, it seems that, in terms of absenteeism, family-type firms tend to report less absenteeism due to their ability to sustain long-term contracts.
Although high wages may be a strong motivator for certain employees, this does not hold true for everybody. Intrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation based on internal rewards like pride and feeling of mastery) plays a more significant role in predicting actual turnover behavior than extrinsic motivation (like money). Moreover, highlighting money may even have an adverse effect, as people who value money may leave their job — even if they enjoy their jobs — if it means that they can make more money.
So how can we promote job security and development?
First it is important to pursue internal hiring as the first option. Hiring from within whenever possible shows employees that the organization cares for the talent that they foster, and that good work will be rewarded.
Aside from promotion, a good way to offer to help develop skills that employees want to learn that can be beneficial for the team or organization. If possible, allocate a budget for employees to take additional educational courses. You can also be more creative when your budget is limited. You can for instance introduce your employees to a mentor who is further along in a similar career, or connect them to peers inside the organization who are skilled in a certain skill that the employee is interested in.
Recap of 4 strategies to reduce absenteeism by tackling employee disengagement
Absenteeism can be a major cost for your organization and your employees’ well-being, but luckily there are a lot of things we can do to help reduce these negative effects.
By actively targeting organizational commitment, and work engagement, we can reduce employee disengagement, thereby reducing a strong determinant of voluntary absenteeism.
Just make sure to:
- Make your employees feel valued
- Actively engage your employees in the day-to-day operations
- Depart from strict predefined job descriptions and allow employees freedom to “job craft.”
- Focus on job security and development rather than high wages
and you will be well on your way to combat employee disengagement.