We are frequently asked for advice and support re how to manage the impact of employee sickness and unplanned absence from work.

Prior to the pandemic, in a survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in February 2020, Australian businesses lose on average $303 per day due to costs associated with absenteeism. The Australian Human Resources Institute also estimate that employees take 8.8 unplanned days per year, costing the Australian economy over $500 million per annum.

In addition to the financial costs, unplanned absences, significantly impact customer service, sales, staff management, workload allocation and workplace culture. If left unmanaged, unplanned absences can lead to higher levels of stress in the workplace, with other employees taking on extra workload and working longer hours. This can create a vicious cycle of poor health outcomes and indeed lead to more absenteeism.

How do you manage Absenteeism?

Identify the contributing factors

The first step is to identify what might be the contributing factors to the unplanned pattern of absence. To do this effectively, the employer will need to collect information from existing employee records such as; leave requests, medical and other supporting leave documentation, email notifications from employees and any file and diary notes you may have drafted.

Whilst injury, illness and attendance at medical appointments is often cited as the main reason for absence, it may be used to obscure the actual cause for the absence.  For example, it is not uncommon for staff to use the ‘cover’ of illness to facilitate; caring for children, elderly parents, or other members of the household.

Furthermore, burnout, stress, depression and declining mental health can all stem from an unhappy workplace or an unhappy employee. Overworked, underpaid, poor workplace culture, unsupportive management, a demanding team, too much change, not enough change, lack of career progression, lack of ambition, feeling out of depth or underappreciated – all of these experiences can contribute to feelings of overwhelm, underwhelm and declining motivation.

The pursuit of a new role, which can be a time consuming and demanding task, may also be managed using sick leave. It is both curious and yet commonplace that new employers seek to interview during business hours. This creates an issue for all parties.

Prepare to communicate directly with your employee

Once you have collected the information, rather than making assumptions re the cause of the absenteeism, engage your employee in a discussion. Face to face, in person communication, is the respectful, professional and appropriate way to manage these interactions.  The purpose of the conversation is to raise the pattern of the absence with the employee, in a supportive and constructive way.

The discussion needs to provide the employee with the opportunity to understand the impact of their absence on the workplace and the broader team. The intention is to work collaboratively with you, the boss / manager, to develop ideas that will reduce the unplanned absences. These discussions may or may not be completely truthful.  This is not necessarily of consequence. The objective of the dialogue, is to open the lines of communication, demonstrate that the absences have been noted, contextualise the effect on the business, provide the employee with an opportunity to share their perspective and raise any issues that may contribute to the behaviour. Importantly, the goal is to collectively develop a pathway to a solution or resolution.

There are a range of options that may assist the process. Encouraging the employee to seek support through an Employee Assistance Program or other relevant health professional or organisation, is advisable in an instance where emotional distress or mental health concerns are raised.  Where the underlying issue is related to poor performance, issues around workplace culture, harassment, bullying, lack of leadership, career stagnation or the like – the communication will need to be escalated and a plan to address initiated immediately – if the issue stands any chance of being ameliorated.  Often, the solution may be as straight forward as temporarily altering hours of work or introducing a flexible working hours arrangement.

If the concern is significant or serious and has the potential to adversely impact the successful meeting of imperative business objectives and more importantly, the safety of staff – further advice must be sought immediately, via legal or workplace relations partners.

Absenteeism is a human centred and therefore complex matter. Often several strategies may need to be considered and implemented. HR Central are equipped with the right knowledge, expertise and experience to work with you, providing the right advice and recommending effective strategies.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Can I ask my employees to provide evidence of their absence from work due to sick or personal leave, even if only one day off work?

A. The Fair Work Act 2009 allows for employers to ask for evidence for as little as one day or less. If employees do not provide the requisite documentation on request, they may not be entitled to be paid the leave. Where individual employees show repetitive patterns of taking sick and personal leave around public holidays and weekends, this may be a useful strategy to manage the issue, purely via the implied communication that it has been noted.

Q. Can I terminate an employee who never shows up for work and does not notify me?

A. Possibly. If the employee has been off work without reasonable explanation for an unreasonable period, they may be considered to have abandoned their employment. But an employer must follow certain processes before this can be confirmed.

Q. An employee has been off work for 4 weeks now and has used up their entire sick/personal leave. Can I terminate them?

A. No. Under the Fair Work Act 2009, it is unlawful to dismiss an employee because of temporary absence from duty due to illness or injury. If they have been off work less than 3 months this is considered temporary.

Webinar: Managing Unplanned Absences

Want to learn more?

Mel Hay

Melissa Hay is part of the HR Specialist Team at HR Central. With over 25 years of experience working in Human Resources across the not for profit sector, aged and disability services, manufacturing, telecommunications, and state and local government including WorkSafe Victoria.

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