Five strategies to reduce absenteeism

Focus on communication, wellness, benefits and recruitment can help
By Neil Rankin
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/18/2017
Empty Chair
In 2011, employees took an average of 9.3 days off, according to the Conference Board of Canada. Credit: Instantvise (Shutterstock)

The numbers definitely add up. In 2011, employees took an average of 9.3 days off, according to the Conference Board of Canada. That means 1,860 days of lost productivity at a 200-employee organization — the equivalent of seven employees being off work for the entire year.

So, how can organizations better manage absenteeism? Here are a few strategies to consider:

Silo communication

Does your organization problem-solve collectively or in silos?

Let’s assume a company has double-digit absenteeism due in part to occupational and non-occupational lost-time claims. Management recognizes this as an issue and proposes changes to the Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC) to address the at-work issues. For the non-occupational claims, changes to the attendance management program are introduced.

Management also recognizes the value of implementing a corporate wellness program, ideally to prevent absences before they occur. While it sounds great, at some organizations, silo management limits or even negates the impact these initiatives may have because one or more of the above issues are being driven by different departments or employees.

For example, the same department may be managing occupational, non-occupational and wellness initiatives. Or the JHSC may be actively involved in managing employee health issues at and away from work.

A wellness culture

To ensure employees are as productive as possible, a multidisciplinary approach is required that addresses both their personal and professional lives. What happens both at and away from work can positively or negatively impact employee productivity.

Several employers say wellness programs help employees lose weight, become more active, stop smoking or eat healthy — but does that really increase productivity? Research suggests employee participation below 60 per cent does not have a real return on investment.

Unfortunately, a common issue with wellness programs is low employee participation rates — not every employee wants to join a walking program or attend a lunch-and-learn session.

Wellness program incentives — such as gift cards for participating in a health-risk assessment — may not work. Perhaps the issue is the rules of engagement. Do employees really want to share their confidential health information with their employer?

If employee participation is an issue, perhaps it is time to tweak the focus. Managing the wellness culture needs to be all-encompassing, including interaction between management and staff, peer to peer and staff to customers.

Fundamentally, employee engagement starts with how people talk to each other. And it’s likely a toxic work environment drastically impacts employee behaviour, both for those at work and those absent from work. Many physician notes recommend a patient or worker move to a new department or report to a new manager.

Creating a positive, upbeat and collaborative work environment that employees get excited about can significantly improve productivity and reduce absenteeism.


Back in 2016, the Conference Board of Canada found only 27 per cent of employees were “highly engaged.” This was attributed in part to the confidence employees had in senior leadership and their relationship with their managers.

Interestingly, the most engaged employees had no tenure or less than a year of service, found the survey of 400 workers.

How can employees be disengaged after a year? Are they so bored with their work that it is no longer engaging? Does the learning curve stop after a year?

In a perfect world, 100 per cent of employees are engaged and passionate about the work they do. And, clearly, the more engaged employees are, the lower the absenteeism rate will be. Unfortunately, that is far from reality.

Part of the issue may be recruitment. For 2012-13, the average turnover rate per year was 7.3 per cent (for employer-initiated dismissals), according to the Conference Board of Canada. That means if a company has 100 full-time staff, it will dismiss more than seven employees in one year.

How could it be that after spending weeks or months determining who the best candidate is — based on skills, abilities, aptitudes, personality and corporate fit — that person ends up leaving?

The takeaway here is to critically evaluate your recruitment process to maximize employee engagement, now and in the future. The payoff in increased productivity and low absenteeism is significant.

Be proactive

Managing employees is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of successful businesses. The 80/20 rule certainly applies: Eighty per cent of the issues are created by 20 per cent of the staff. So, what to do?

Take, for example, an employee with chronic disability issues. While every effort is made to accommodate the person, after months or even years of employee-employer meetings, endless physician notes and poor productivity, nothing is improving.

Go back in time to the employee’s first year or two at the organization. What red flags were identified? No employee is perfect — everyone has issues that pop up from time to time — but how much face-to-face time is the supervisor spending on addressing the issues?

Being proactive in identifying the workplace, personal, medical and cognitive needs of employees is an investment in both the employee and the corporation.

Enhanced benefits

If an organization buys into the philosophy that total compensation should be about making employees the best they can be — whether that pertains to health care, disability management, productivity, wellness or retention — adding personal growth coaching may be worth considering.

Adding a capped coaching option is a win-win for employees and employers. How many times have employees struggled to maintain a level of productivity that is less than ideal?

The routine is familiar for most supervisors: A face-to-face meeting with the employee to hopefully extract whatever issues need to be addressed. Some employees may respond favourably to this approach, others may not.

A personal growth coach can offer complete confidentiality, creating an ideal rapport-building opportunity — unlike a confrontational supervisor meeting where an employee is put on the defensive. Of course, not every supervisor-employee relationship is poor, but a growth coach can work with employees proactively, long before any absenteeism or productivity issues become a problem.


There are many strategies to managing absenteeism, and these strategies need to be implemented with patience and thoughtful analysis. One of the most valuable learning opportunities is uncovering interesting nuggets of information about the culture of the organization.

Every employer is different, so the most appropriate path forward must always reflect how workers respond to new initiatives meant to improve productivity.

Neil Rankin is a specialist in disability management and employee absenteeism. For more information, visit

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