Absence and Productivity

Excerpt from Absence and Productivity (copyright © The Prudential Insurance Company of America. Developed jointly by Work/Family Directions, Inc., and The Prudential Insurance Company of America.) Written by Hal Morgan.

Absence and Productivity: Practical solutions for managers

“I won’t be coming in today.” How many times have you received that phone call from an employee? And how many times have you tried to be sympathetic while you suppressed feelings of frustration and irritation over the difficulty that absence creates for you?

When an employee is out of work, even for a few days, it can disturb the equilibrium of a work team, causing stress, overwork, or even resentment among remaining team members. Absence can lead work groups to miss deadlines, let customers down, and lose important business. It also causes more work for you as a manager. You are left to figure out how to cover the work. You may need to find, train, and monitor a replacement as well as give extra support to the other members of the work team. In the end, employee absences become your problem.

Absences, too, are almost always associated with higher costs. Labor costs are, in effect, doubled when wages or disability payments are paid to absent employees and the business also pays for temporary replacements. Recruitment and training costs are incurred when a replacement must be hired during the absence, or when the absent employee chooses not to return. Costly mistakes are often made through substitute workers’ lack of expertise. And high absence rates are almost always associated with higher company medical costs. When short- and long-term disability claims rise, your company’s premiums can also go up, sometimes dramatically.

Many of these costs are hidden because they are charged to different budgets, or because the drain on productivity is not easily measured. Your budget may be charged directly for the cost of a replacement worker, but wages paid through a disability or sick-leave plan may come from another account. Recruitment and training costs are rarely measured with precision, nor are the consequences of mistakes or customer problems caused by inexperienced replacement workers.

The costs of disability absence have a human dimension as well. Employees who aren’t encouraged to return to work can be lost to productive work permanently as they settle—often unnecessarily—into a pattern of disabled life. The longer they are out of work, the less likely they are to come back. They lose confidence and they lose the self-respect that comes from productivity and gainful employment.

Beyond the disruption to your work team and the cost of absence is another painful fact: many long-term disabilities can be prevented or shortened by effective management. Much of the business cost—and the human toll—resulting from prolonged absence is unnecessary. Occasionally this is because employees are taking advantage of the system. But more often it is unnecessary because employees leave the workplace for the wrong reasons or they stay out too long because those involved—managers, company policy-makers, and sometimes even the disabled employees themselves—believe they have no control over when a return to work can occur.

It is true that some of the factors affecting absence and disability are out of your control. You can’t affect laws or insurance requirements. Company policies and incentives, too, may get in the way of an employee’s healthy return to work—although you may be able to encourage change in those rules and practices. And you can’t influence whether an employee needs time off for childbirth or adoption, or to recover from an illness or injury.

But you can affect how an employee manages work before and during an absence. And as a manager, you can build a team and an environment that your employees want to return promptly—where they can work productively while receiving treatment for an illness, for example, and where they feel their contribution counts. While absence tends to be a negative factor in a manager’s work life—something you may not like to think about—the steps you can take to minimize its cost and disruption are all positive. They have to do with sound, healthy management.

Absence card

How does my management style affect employee absences on my team?

As a manager or supervisor, you have more control than you may realize over the rates of employee absence in your work group, and over the lengths of those absences when employees are forced to take time off. Put yourself in your employees’ shoes. You wake up on a workday morning with a headache or a stiff back. Do you go to work or do you stay home? It’s a subjective decision, part of which will be based purely on your medical or psychological condition, but part, too, on dozens of other factors. You might ask yourself:

  • What will my day be like if I do go in?
  • Will I be able to take a break if I need one?
  • Do I feel my customers rely on me and will be affected if I miss a day?
  • Do I feel my co-workers will be affected if I miss a day?
  • Do I feel that I am respected at work, and that my skills are valued?
  • When was the last time I missed work?
  • Will I be penalized for missing work today?
  • Will I be able to rest quietly if I stay home. or will distractions prevent rest?
  • Do I look forward to seeing my manager and co-workers, or would it be a relief to not see them today?

The list could be longer, but you get the point.

Absence and attendance are driven to a great extent by subjective feelings about work.
Some of these an employee brings to the job as “attitude” or “work ethic.” But many of those feelings are driven by conditions at the workplace, including things you can control:

  • how you manage and relate to the people who report to you
  • how you coach or criticize
  • whether you acknowledge or reward employees’ contributions
  • whether your trust and respect your employees
  • how much flexibility is available to vary the standard work routine
  • how team members support each other and work together
  • whether workloads are equitable and reasonable
  • whether employees have the tools and equipment they need to do their work
  • whether your employees feel that you and others at the company understand the work they do and support them in getting that work done
  • whether your employees feel that you and others at the company take an interest in their goals, and in their lives and responsibilities outside of work

In a work environment where employees are respected and trusted, where good work is recognized and rewarded, where opportunities for learning and growth exist, and where the work itself is satisfying, most workers will want to come to work—or at least the negative aspects of work won’t keep them away. This sort of environment breeds employee commitment to work, to the team, and to the organization. And in a very healthy way it encourages quick returns after illness, injury, or other life events that require employees to take time off.

Management style affects work performance.
Yet many of us, even as we try hard to be good managers, inadvertently act in ways that dampen enthusiasm and drive employees away from work, rather than motivating them to give their best effort and “go the extra mile” in their jobs. Sometimes we do it with the best of intentions. For example, in the interest of fairness we discourage flexibility. We worry about intruding and don’t find out about important events in our employees’ lives. We shy away from criticism and don’t give employees the guidance they need—or we criticize too harshly and discourage initiative. Because we are busy meeting our own work goals, we don’t take the time to praise and encourage our subordinates and peers. And sometimes, because of our notions about what it means to manage, we don’t allow employees the control over their work that they need in order to apply their full effort.

Good management is an intentional process.
It takes time and effort. It means leaving our “comfort zones” and forcing ourselves to behave and interact in ways that may not feel natural at first, but that can become second nature with practice.