Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nobody wins playing hooky

Survey shows huge percentage of employees admit skipping work

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It seems our workplace cycles are balanced around the school year. Therefore, September means back to school for all levels of students and back to "serious" work for employees.

The reason I use the word "serious" is summer is the time when most employees take a vacation, and to be honest, many employees also work at just a little bit slower pace.

While work life ramps up in the fall, so do the many people issues that come with leading an organization.

And, as with schools, one of the problems that arises is the issue of absenteeism. Yes, people legitimately become ill, especially when colds and fevers are passed from schoolchildren to adults. However, the bigger issue related to absenteeism is the concept of playing hooky.

No mistake, the issue isn't related to our good old Canadian game of hockey! Instead, hooky is a rather unwelcome game in which employees are absent without permission or without an excuse. In fact, some employees simply disappear for days at a time. Unfortunately, absenteeism in the form of hooky is far too common and a lot more costly to organizations than recognized.

A recent survey showed more than half of employed Canadians (54 per cent) readily admitted they've called in sick as an excuse for simply not wanting to come to work. What's shocking, however, is the fact 71 per cent of the survey's Manitoban participants admitted they have played hooky from work. Approximately 83 per cent of this Manitoba group of employees stated stress and burnout as their reason for faking a sick day.

This statistic is an astounding and disturbing number, and if the figures weren't staring me in the face, I wouldn't have believed it. In fact, I've consistently defended Manitoba workers whenever I've encountered someone who insists our workers are "unproductive." Frankly, I don't know what to think! Are Manitoba workers lazy, inconsiderate, uncommitted or selfish, and/or are leaders failing to recognize and deal with workplace stress?

In my view, work is a two-way street. It's an opportunity for individuals to achieve personal satisfaction and growth, and for employers, it's an opportunity to build a strong team, build a great product and/or provide superior service.

With the right mix, work can be such a win-win for everyone. Yet it's obvious more attention needs to be paid to the issue of absenteeism, and organizations need to take the lead.

Start with a good look at your payroll costs. Absenteeism impacts three areas in your workplace. There are the direct costs for wages and benefits paid to employees while they are away. There are indirect costs for loss of productivity, and there are hard-dollar replacement costs for those individuals who cover for the absentee employee. Finally, there are also administrative costs that go along with any absenteeism.

Overall, studies show total absenteeism costs can average 35 per cent of base payroll, while incidental, unplanned absences such as playing hooky costs an organization approximately 5.8 per cent of payroll. In addition, incidental, unplanned absences across all employee levels averaged 5.4 days per employee and result in the highest net loss of productivity per day.

In most cases, replacement workers consist of supervisors and/or co-workers. In the case of supervisors, this means a higher-paid employee is doing the work of a lesser-paid employee, which creates an increased cost of 19 per cent per absentee coverage. In the case of a co-worker, this extra work most often results in overtime costs of approximately 15 per cent of the absence cost.

As well, when employees work in teams and one key person is absent, studies show productivity is reduced an average 22 per cent. This may be due to the fact that meetings are postponed and projects are delayed when the absent employee is not replaced. However, part of the dilemma for a leader is that inserting a new individual into an established team for a brief period often decreases rather than increases productivity.

At the same time, there are a good deal of hidden costs that are difficult to quantify. For instance, absenteeism in general, and especially a chronic hooky player, can cause challenges with employee morale. When individuals become overworked, they become stressed and therefore less productive. The situation will also cause discontent among employees as blaming and finger-pointing begin to occur, especially when key deadlines are missed and group or corporate penalties are applied.

So just how are organizations managing absenteeism, especially unplanned, incidental absences? Most organizations now have some sort of flex-time policies and/or personal days, as well as formal attendance and absence procedures. However, the challenge for managers is actually enforcing these attendance policies.

The key strategy is to act immediately. Most mid-size and large organizations are utilizing attendance-management systems that allow managers to quickly identify individuals who appear to be experiencing a problem with attendance. These statistics are forwarded to a human resources and/or department manager for followup. Again, action must be taken or the monitoring system will be ineffective.

On the other hand, smaller organizations without standardized and enforceable human-resources policies and tracking systems may find themselves challenged with managing attendance because their records are often inaccurate. In fact, a large percentage of employee complaints, or lawsuits for that matter, pertain to inaccurate and/or insufficient tracking of employee time, with the majority of cased resolved in the employee's favour.

More forward-thinking organizations are tackling absenteeism by focusing on the overall health and well-being of their employees. This includes elements such as flexible work policies, telecommuting, health assessments, stop-smoking and weight-loss programs, plus annual flu and blood-pressure clinics. In addition, we see organizations placing priority on employee development as a means to attract, retain and engage workers.

On the other hand, attendance at work is an individual employee responsibility. In my view, attendance is a key career responsibility. That's because one of the most frequent performance measures for any employee is a record of attendance dependability. How can you get ahead in your career if you aren't at work? How can anyone depend on you?

Thus, it's important to be professional by attending work on time and making arrangements to deal with personal affairs outside of work hours whenever possible. It also means following your policy guidelines by providing early notification of absences, completing report documents as required, providing medical confirmation and staying in close touch with the supervisor.

Now that organizations have returned to a "serious" business cycle, it's time for both employers and employees to get serious about attendance. Playing hooky is just not acceptable.

Source: Canadian HR Reporter, Kronos survey "Sick and Tired", news release, May 15, 2013; Survey on the Total Financial Impact of Employee Absences, Mercer, June 2010.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, M.Ed., CCP, is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2013 H1

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