Short-term absences double in three years

By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/04/2003

In the last five years or so, there have been a lot more employees taking a few days off at the Newfoundland and Labrador Health Boards Association.

“Our costs for short-term absences are rising at a faster rate than long-term,” said Geoff Williams, the association’s director of labour relations. Employees are frustrated by years of wage freezes and even clawbacks. “There seems to be a more prevalent attitude of ‘If I’m not being recognized and I’m entitled to one or two days a month, I’m going to take it,’” he said.

Williams is not alone.

A new study, released late last month, reveals that in the last three years, the number of employee short-term absences has more than doubled, going from just two per cent of payroll in 1997 to 4.2 per cent today. According to employers a big part of the problem is employees believing they are entitled to taking time off.

“They’re some very scary numbers because the short-term absence numbers have more than doubled. I can’t think of too many things more scary than that,” said Jane Petruniak, senior consultant in the group and health-care practice of Watson Wyatt Worldwide, the firm that conducted the study. A lot of employers have been focusing on long-term disability but the most pressing issue these days has become short term. In fact a lot of organizations don’t even know what their short-term costs are so it tends not to get very much attention from senior staff, she said.

According to the survey of 281 Canadian businesses, the average direct cost of employee absenteeism in Canada is now $3,550 per employee per year up from $2,843 in 1997. Most of the cost increase is due to the doubling of short-term absences.

Respondents to the survey most often blamed an entitlement mentality and preventable health problems for the increase. Some employees feel they have more time owed to them then they really do, said Petruniak. A phenomenon that has increased in recent years as employees feel they deserve time away from work because of rising stress levels. There is no simple solution, said Petruniak. But employers should begin with the simple things like tracking the numbers of absences, for starters — the first step toward establishing what is driving the increases.

Besides blaming an aging workforce and a school system that has taught younger workers that absences are OK, Williams said employees have to be held more accountable for their absences. When employees are continually taking days off and nothing happens to them their co-workers begin to believe it’s all right to take time off too.

Return-to-work and early intervention programs are good for managing long-term disability, but not for short-term absences which is much more difficult.

“Any strategy (to combat the rise of short-term absences) has to be formed from a mutual gain perspective,” he said. Educate employees about the cost of their time away from work and its impact on co-workers who are left to pick up the slack.

Williams said they have also begun experimenting with a new program to defray the cost of employee absences. “We’re getting individuals or their doctors to tell us what they can do versus what they cannot do.” An employee may only be able to do 40 per cent of her old job but that still might be preferable to bringing in somebody else to try to do 100 per cent.

“For each organization the key call to action is to take a look at what’s going on in your organization.” The numbers in the study may not be representative, but even if absences are up 70 per cent, that represents a dramatic hit to the bottom line that doesn’t cost that much to fix, she said.

Employers still have to give employees more flexibility, but that doesn’t preclude making them more accountable for achieving results at work.

There should also be a greater degree of accountability for disability within the organization, ensuring anyone, or any department that is experiencing higher disability or absence rates is at the very least aware of that problem, has a good explanation for it and is doing something to remedy it. While it is difficult to punish parties for high rates of absenteeism, they can be motivated to comply with rewards for low absence rates.

In the vast majority of cases, an employee’s absence is legitimate, said Neal Sommer, national partner specializing in management-side labour law for the Toronto firm Baker and McKenzie.

And another group may not be faking it but may decide not to rush back as soon as they can. It’s a fine line between people who just don’t want to go to work and those who are legitimately disabled. If an organization suspects they have people who are taking advantage of time off work they should take a look at what they may be doing wrong to cause it. “The question has to be asked, ‘why are we making it unpleasant for people to come into work?’”

That said, there is also more that employers should be doing when employees file disability claims.

“An employer places trust in the medical community to be objective and neutral in their assessment but that’s a mistaken trust,” said Sommer. It’s not intentional but they are trained to trust all employees. “I’ve never seen a doctor write a note saying ‘Joe saw me today but could have gone to work.’”

Because of that, employers should make sure the employee’s doctor is getting full and accurate information about the workplace. Often employees don’t even realize they’re not giving complete information, so if a company doctor calls the personal doctor, more informed decisions will be made by the personal physician.

Secondly, employers should not be afraid to continue to be employers, he said. Communicate with employees and expect regular updates so that the employee continues to feel engaged with the workplace rather than as if they are on a holiday.

And for short-term absences, always make sure employees go the doctor. If an employee is away a lot, they may have a weak immune system that deserves special attention. And if nothing else, a trip to the doctor will validate the absence and discourage those who are feeling fine from taking that day off. “If you’re home sick you shouldn’t be doing things like going shopping, you should be home sick,” Sommer said.

Petruniak agreed employers and HR departments can do more to ensure employees are back at work as soon as possible. In almost all cases, employees that go to family doctors with difficult to diagnose ailments, return with notes saying they can’t work. It then typically becomes a rather lengthy waiting game, as employees line up to see heavily booked specialists, sometimes for seven or eight months. If it’s going to take that long, it makes sense for the employer to step in and speed the process along. Work through the insurer or other third party agents to get employees to a specialist sooner, she said.

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