· News

The top 10 causes of absenteeism and what you can do about it

When someone calls in sick, it doesnt necessarily mean they are ill. Jenny Hiscock explores solutions to the most common causes of absence

Yorkshire Electricity Distribution (YED) won a Human Resources Excellence award this year partly for the way it treated one of its assistant street-lighting co-ordinators.

When he was forced to have one of his legs removed in an operation, the company rented an automatic car for him, modified his desk and found a chair he could use in comfort. His colleagues even changed their work patterns to accommodate his needs.

Absenteeism and inclusion:

Sickness absences fall to lowest rate in 15 years, highlighting work from home pitfall

What is your sickness absence rate really telling you?

Absence recording: The silent legal risk to HR

YED is probably unusual in going to such lengths for an employee, and sadly it is probably equally unusual in recognising not only that there are more factors to absenteeism than sickness alone - but in actually doing something about it.

To reflect this, the company's health strategy for its 1,500 employees is based on five key components: physical health, psychological health, work-home balance, good environmental health and economic health.

YED uses BUPA nurses to assess those who fall victim to accidents at home or in the workplace. We focus on minimising work-related ill-health by carrying out job surveillance, says personnel manager Karen Greenwood. This is a process carried out on employees who are deemed to be at risk if they work with machinery, for example and helps us develop safety policies to minimise accidents.

The company also operates a back-to-work programme for any employees who suffer injuries. We make sure our occupational health team and the line manager stay in touch so that people recovering don't feel isolated, and we get information from the doctor to help us get the person back to work, whether that means changing the parameters of their job, or simply providing different facilities.

But the causes of absenteeism can be quite varied. The 400 staff at VJS Foods, a meat-packing company in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, lacked motivation and commitment a problem that was blamed on the towns zero unemployment rate. In the year to October 2000 just 50 of the companys workforce had come into work every day.

People can move from one job to another without a care in the world, explains the companys personnel manager, Mark Oliver. Staff go sick because they know that within an hour of being disciplined or sacked they can walk into a new job.

To combat this attitude, VJS Foods has launched a lottery: workers with a good attendance record are entered into a monthly draw to win one of two 1,000 prizes. Those who turn up every day for six months are entered into a draw to share a 50,000 bonus. The idea is to reward and incentivise people, says Oliver. I admit its a form of bribery, but it works. Indeed, this year, 300 of the 400 workers have been to work every day.

But what are the main causes of absenteeism and how can employers tackle them? Here we have explored solutions to the top 10 causes of absenteeism. But be warned: there are no quick fixes.

The best place to begin is with an assessment of your own company's attendance issues. And in order to really make a difference to absenteeism and the health mental and physical of the entire workforce, companies must take the holistic approach.

As Christine Owen, European partner at healthcare consultants William M Mercer, says, The danger is that HR people pick off one problem at a time, its like air in a balloon if you only tackle one part of the problem you're just shifting the air from one part of the balloon to another.


Nearly 80% of women with children between the ages of six and 13 work outside the home. This means that when a child is ill or when normal childcare arrangements fail for any reason, one of the parents may have to call in sick to look after their child.

Moreover, according to Accor Services, each childcare crisis takes an average of 16 hours to resolve and 80% of that needs to be done in working hours. People have to make calls in work time and lunch hours because that's when childminders, nannies and nurseries are available, says Stephanie Beer, operations director, family life solutions, at Accor.

To increase productivity, many public and private organisations have introduced access to childcare vouchers, on-site crche facilities and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) that can help with sourcing emergency and long-term childcare and eldercare Nottingham City Council, which employs 14,000 staff, uses a family helpline provided by Accor alongside its two childcare schemes.

We know from talking to staff that they will take a day off sick to look after their sick child, says Lynn Griffin-Pearce, personnel consultant at the council.

I think our helpline does reduce absenteeism, but its also down to the attitude of the line manager. If its good, then staff are not as worried about calling in and being honest that they have a sick child or elderly relative and need time off.

West Yorkshire Police has an in-house team dedicated to assessing childcare provision across the county. Its aim is to help officers find childminding networks, holiday clubs and nanny services.

But, in the past five months the organisation has gone a few steps further by introducing baby-changing and play-rooms in its training centre and at Shipley police station. Its not a full creche facility yet, but that's on the agenda, says chief superintendent Stuart Hyde, director of training for West Yorkshire Police.



BTs group medical adviser, Paul Litchfield, acknowledges that accidents will always happen.

We have our share of accidents, he admits, but we also have systems in place to ensure that staff are properly trained in safety procedures and first aid. In addition, BT operates an occupational health service, whereby employees can be referred to specialist medics. It also offers employees open access to physiotherapy for work or home-related accidents.

We have extended this to open access over the past couple of years as weve found it is used more and people can get back to work more quickly, says Litchfield. Within five to 10 days of a request people can be seen and treatment initiated.

If the injury causes long-term or permanent damage, BTs occupational health service allows for employees to see a doctor who can recommend different ways of working.

But what can you do in terms of accident prevention when 99% of injuries sustained by your employees are either sporting ones or home-related? This is what NEC Semiconductors found, and so the company now holds a health-and-safety week at least once a year. These feature talks from the police and fire service, plus competitions and exhibition stands in order to raise awareness of accident prevention and ultimately reduce absenteeism.


The major causes of sickness absence today are stress and muscular-skeletal disorders. Of course, these are symptoms of wider problems including overwork and poor management in the case of the former, and badly designed offices, lack of training or poor seating or posture in the case of the latter.

It is often cost-effective for employers to pay for ill employees to jump NHS queues and get treated privately. We do have PMI but not across the whole company, says BTs Litchfield.

Senior people have it as a flexible benefit, but those who aren't entitled get access to the Benenden Healthcare Society scheme, which offers them a range of healthcare options, such as diagnostic consultations, general surgery and medical treatment and cancer-care support, for about 2 a month.

Since BTs two-tier approach is at risk of demoralising the majority of employees, other companies look to provide equal cover across the workforce. At NEC Semiconductors, 60%-70% of absence is due to sickness, so the company provides PMI from Norwich Union for all 1,600 of its employees.

Its vital to us that staff arent waiting for treatment, says occupational health manager Aileen Stewart. We offer immediate access to physiotherapy and a phased return to work for long-term absences.

For mental health, stress or confidence problems NEC Semiconductors employees are invited to meet colleagues for lunches before returning to work and, when they do come back, they are given reduced hours so they can get back to normal more quickly.


Described as one of Britains most worrying workplace phenomena by TUC secretary general John Monks, bullying costs employers 18 million days work every year. According to a TUC-commissioned survey of 5,300 workers, one in 10 had been bullied in the previous six months.

The survey, carried out by psychologists at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), found that victims of bullying take seven more days off sick a year than those not being bullied.

The survey found that in 75% of cases the boss was the bully so where are employees expected to turn?

We have a bullying and harassment policy and as part of that we offer a confidential counselling and mediator service, says Stewart at NEC Semiconductors.

The mediator service goes between the victim and the harasser, and all too often its the boss thats doing the bullying. They need us to act as the honest broker and put both points of view across calmly and clearly, with the aim of resolving the situation.

Formalising the situation further, Royal Bank of Scotland deploys a work-life balance consultancy, Ceridian Performance, to investigate any harassment charges.

Caroline McLellan, HR consultant at the bank, says this means employees feel more secure in the knowledge that their grievance will be dealt with fairly, with few repercussions.

At United Biscuits meanwhile, there are one or two people at each of the four sites who are trained in harassment counselling. We have implemented a dignity at work programme to ensure we get people to talk about bullying, says group director for occupational health, safety and environment Bill McCulloch.

The programme basically means that people are made to think about how they treat others. They are encouraged to talk about bullying and made aware of the help available to them.



A good balance between work and life seems like an unattainable goal. But a growing number of companies are paying attention to flexible working practices. We offer a holiday banking scheme where people can save and accumulate up to 50 days to take at once, says McLellan at the Royal Bank of Scotland, and they can also buy an extra five days holiday per year.

According to an Industrial Society survey, operating flexible working hours is the option most likely to reduce absence. This is a solution practised by the low-cost airline, easyJet. If people do longer hours at the beginning of the week, within reason, they can take them back at the end of the week, says spokeswoman Samantha Day.

But if employees wake up and decide they simply don't want to work that day, it's a valid enough excuse for Cabal Communications, a publishing company that has begun offering its staff four paid duvet days, or mental health days, per year.

The belief at the top of the company is that if someone is run down then they are a negative force to the rest of the team, says Steven Fletcher, group advertisement director. So they should be able to take a day and recharge their batteries.

Though the scheme does have its problems, as Fletcher points out: "It can be frustrating if we are on deadline, but staff generally know when it's not wise to take a duvet day."

Poor leadership

A survey of employee attitudes carried out in August by the Gallup Organisation has shown that 80% of UK workers lack any real commitment to their jobs. And the single most important reason for their disengagement? Poor management.

Disaffected employees, the results say, miss 10 more working days through absenteeism compared with fewer than five days for other employees. The survey, which questioned 800 workers, found that there are 8% fewer fully committed employees in the UK than in the US.

When it comes to tackling poor leadership, says Owen at William M Mercer, we would recommend analysing managers and then providing them with training before analysing them again to check that the knowledge had sunk in.

One company tackling poor management head-on is BUPA. It conducts a programme called Leading One Life which all its managers undergo. The process involves self-diagnosis and 360 analyses, where managers get feedback from their peers and their staff. Then, in teams of eight or 10, managers are given training to instil whatever skills they are lacking before another round of 360 feedback.

We are looking to see if low management scores have a direct correlation to high sickness levels, says Barry Dyer, director of organisational development. If you have a manager that is not receptive, where is your motivation to come to work?


Dealing with bereavement is never easy, but companies that offer counselling services stand a better chance of helping employees through a rough time. Perhaps they will get staff back to work more quickly, perhaps not, but they will certainly get their staff back in a healthier mental state than if no counselling had been provided.

Problems occur, says BTs Litchfield, when people suffer a protracted bereavement reaction. Bereavement reaction goes through four separate stages: disbelief, anger, depression and reconciliation. This is perfectly normal, he says, but can lead to prolonged sickness absence when the depression phase becomes protracted.

BT uses an employee assistance programme provided by the HR services firm, PPC, and encourages people to take up its phone or face-to-face counselling. If recovery takes longer, the occupational health service is brought in to see if there are work factors compounding the depression. We can start with part-time work and build it up over a period of weeks, to ensure employees are comfortable and productive before they get back into the swing of work, says Litchfield.

A similar process is used at NEC Semiconductors where a 24-hour counselling programme is offered to employees as part of the companys healthcare programme. We also give paid leave, says Stewart. It sounds awful, but the closer the family member, the more paid leave is allocated.


A changing work environment, caused by merger or acquisition, poor economic climate or unforeseen circumstances, can make employees feel insecure and stressed, which can lead to absence.

The 11 September terrorist attack in America has made the airline industry more vulnerable to this than ever. Following the tragedy, easyJet had to maintain morale in the workplace by communicating well with its staff.

"We are now back on track with sales and performance," says an easyJet spokeswoman. "We had to communicate that to staff via our intranet and easyJet TV and newsletters."

In addition to this, chief executive Ray Webster wrote to each member of staff at their home addresses to reassure them and tell them how the company was reacting.

Royal Bank of Scotland, which has recently completed a hostile takeover of NatWest involving 2,000 redundancies, has relied upon thorough and regular forms of communication, such as intranet newsletters and meetings, to keep employees motivated.

"As well as the usual forms of communication about the merger, we have set up an integration helpline so that staff can call up and ask, What will happen to my job?, Will I be made redundant?, and get answers that relate directly to their situation," says McLellan.


Employees at easyJet at Luton Airport are encouraged to use public transport to ease traffic congestion in the area and to reduce lateness due to queues. In order to persuade its staff to come to work by train, easyJet has struck a deal with Thameslink allowing its staff a 50% discount on all fares.

However, todays public transport is so unreliable that it can prevent employees getting to work as opposed to taking them there. Delays or strikes are often predictable so employers can think ahead about staggering peoples starting times to make sure they can still meet clients needs.

Further options are to avoid booking early morning meetings at all, or to equip staff with palmtops or laptops so that they can not only work from home, but also if they are stuck on a train.

But if staff really need to make an appearance, perhaps the most effective solution is for employers to go and get them. Pfizer laid on coaches and buses to get people to work, but not all companies can do that, so they need to consider home-working and job sharing, says Les Smith, former head of occupational health at Pfizer and now medical director at Businesshealth.


Companies have moved to open-plan offices for space and team-building reasons, but open plan causes lots of ambient noise and concentration problems, says Mercer's Owen.

"It can also cause ventilation problems because the infrastructure of the building is not designed to cope with open plan," she says.

If you put that together, you find that people cant face the office environment and would rather work at home, or if that option is not available they call in sick.

Workplaces can use good ergonomic design as a way of reducing stress and absenteeism, but all too often they consider the office environment an insignificant factor in productivity.

Office ergonomics is high on the agenda at Yorkshire Electricity Distribution, where trained internal assessors regularly check the position of employees chairs, desks and display screen equipment. We also have vouchers for eye tests, then if the test says the employee needs glasses for computer work, wed pay for those as well, says YEDs Greenwood.

At BUPA, customer satisfaction is measured against staff satisfaction, says the companys head of customer service, Pauline McMichael. As a leader in private medical care, BUPA should be expected to care about its staff, but it has gone the extra mile.

Three and a half years ago it applied feng shui to its call centre, replacing traditional furniture with curvaceous desks and chairs, and paying attention to colour, light, form and sound. The change included the addition of two rooms, one green and red for a recharging effect and a deep purple one for a calming influence.

Some of the calls our staff have to deal with can be quite emotional, says McMichael, so they need these facilities. Moreover, both customer and staff satisfaction levels have been increasing year on year since the introduction of the new design.