Is there no one standard definition of absenteeism?

Workplace attendance and its antithesis workplace absenteeism are both complex and multifaceted phenomena that have both negative and positive consequences for all organisations.

Yet, with a concerted effort the problems presented can be corrected and strategies can be developed that will improve an organisation’s overall productivity while driving down costs, improving customer relationships and enhancing corporate creditability.

Our experience and research over the past 25 years has highlighted a number of startling facts.

The first and arguably the cause of all the contentious issues and practices surrounding absenteeism is that there is no one standard of definition of absenteeism and is referred to differently by the various parties involved leaving a variety terms that refer to the same circumstance.

To illustrate this point;

  • Fair Work Ombudsman National Employment Standards documents refer to “The minimum ‘entitlement’ to paid personal/carers leave for an employee is 10 days per year”.
  • While HR Managers, Consultants and Lawyers often refer to sick pay as a ‘benefit’ or a ‘condition’ of employment.

Evidence based HR/OD principles require preciseness in the language used as a prerequisite for a high performance workplace culture.

Thus in the interests of preciseness we use the terms;

  • Planned Absenteeism; which includes annual leave, long service leave and regular, routine and on going medical treatment.
  • Unplanned Absenteeism; which is absenteeism with short or no notice.

Creditable research by various Industry and Employer Associations and   The Australasian College of Physicians points to the mean rate of absenteeism per worker is about 6 days per annum, (about which half is medically related), with a spread of 1 day to 10 days.

The consequence of unplanned absenteeism includes;

  • Loss of production
  • Increased production costs
  • Increased workloads
  • Low moral
  • Increase in overtime costs
  • Frustrated managers
  • Poor product quality
  • Increased management and supervision costs and stress
  • Adverse opinions held by customers

In the 1990’s we were engaged to provide an end-to-end HR and OD  strategy for a greenfield coal mine site in the Hunter Valley. Our research, involving other operating mines in the area, revealed that the biggest single impediment to productivity was Unplanned Absenteeism.

That is the unscheduled non attendance by haul truck drivers and plant operators where notification was either absent or far too late in the day usually caused the piece of equipment was parked up.

Typically, lost opportunity costs for a haul truck being 450 tonnes a load with 35 haul runs a shift at $US55 a tonne. A considerable amount of lost revenue that was very hard to make up.

Further investigation revealed that, consistent with other research, about 50% of the unplanned absenteeism was not medically related.

Further investigation revealed that it was about family obligations such as transporting a sick relative to the base hospital in Newcastle for continuing health treatment or to watch a grand child in a sporting event in Sydney.

To combat the unplanned nature of the absenteeism we introduced through the Enterprise Agreement the concept of Pressing Domestic Leave being 3 days annually of fully paid but not accumulative leave to meet home and family obligations provide a weeks notice was given.

The strategy, which includes the development of absenteeism notification policies, was an instant success and became self funding in a short time.

This innovative concept was soon to be adopted Employers Associations and the Union movement who re-branded it as personal /carers leave and it is now enshrined in Fair Work Australia Regulations.

We have found that there is in some workplaces there is an absentee culture where there is a belief that taking “sickies” is all about claiming what is rightfully a workers entitlement which is contrary to the employment benefit of a safety net for sick people.

One of our techniques in reviewing absenteeism is to search for patterns of absenteeism and how that corresponds to personal hobbies and calendar significant events. We have also found that the front line supervisor plays an important role in absentee management as does the line manager.  

Another finding is the strong lack of knowledge of the consequences of making a false Statutory Declaration, which is the usual method of claiming sick pay without a doctor’s certificate. The penalty for making a false declaration is a maximum of 4 years imprisonment.

To correct this poor approach to unplanned absenteeism, to improve production and hence profitability all organisations must develop implement, adopt and subsequently practice a series of attendance policies and procedures which define the context and objectives, assign responsibilities and accountabilities to managers and supervisors.

One of our most disturbing events occurred during an intervention at a large 24/7 production plant operating in Victoria where manufactured overtime was a suspected and to a certain point accepted practice. A shift maintenance person was over heard saying to his fellow work mate. “I would like you to have a couple of sickies in the next month. My daughter is getting married and I need the overtime. I will pay you back the month after it’s all over”.

Another interesting comment came from a first line supervisor in a road services organisation where the supervisors, being the true custodians of a workplace culture, were asked about their roles and responsibilities in the management of unscheduled absenteeism. “What is wrong with him being sick every Tuesday after along weekend? He is entitled to it.”

One of our most successful interventions was with a Shire Council in country NSW, where the average rate of sick pay across the council was 9 days per employee, far above the national average. We analysed the data, searched for patterns, scrutinised the policies and procedures and liaised with the various representatives including councillors. We then designed an absentee awareness training program for all levels of the council covering legal implications, revised policies and procedures.

The absenteeism rate fell and the net result was that in the first 12 months of operation we returned to the rate payers 1800 extra service days (council speak). This figure increased in the next 12 months to 2200 it then stabilised and remained at that figure into the future. This figure transcribes into 9 or 10 employee being needed to cover preventable and /or unnecessary absenteeism.

We have used case studies to illustrate the depth and variety of the problem of workplace absenteeism, which can be usually addressed by a well planned and implemented culture change intervention. The first step is to establish a set of standard definitions that at this point seems to be beyond industry players as a whole

For those that wish to improve productivity, drive down costs, improve profitability and improve customer relationships analysing the current workplace absenteeism is a good place to start.


About Michael Minns:

Michael Minns is evidence based Human Resources and Organisational Development Consultant. He formed the consultancy firm that bears his name, Michael Minns Human Resources in 1983. MMHR is Australia’s oldest and most senior HR/OD consultancy and operates in all states of Australia, New Zealand South East Asia and the Pacific.