Key topics | Health management

How to reduce absenteeism

Absenteeism: A high cost factor for companies

When it comes to health in the workplace, many people in Germany initially think of absence due to illness. No wonder: workplace absence has serious financial effects on a company.

According to the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA), the average cost for one day of work incapacity per employee is 250 euros (BAuA 2015). In Germany, Bertelsmann also has high annual costs due to incapacity. Apart from continued wage payment and productivity losses, additional expenditure must be made for reorganization, substitutions, and orientation. In case of short-term absence, other colleagues have to take over the work. This in turn increases the pressure to perform and dissatisfaction: If one is ill, the whole team suffers.

Generally, employees in Germany are obliged to submit a physician’s medical certificate to their employer on the first to the fourth day of illness. This ensures HR departments have an up-to-date overview of the number of days of work incapacity. Such determinations are made particularly simple with the help of work time registration software which can evaluate and compare absence rates for specific time periods. In addition, German health insurance companies provide anonymous statistical overviews of the types of illness, age groups, duration and gender distribution of days of work incapacity. This data provides a good basis for the precise analysis of employee illness and deriving preventive measures.

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Absenteeism – the tip of the iceberg

However evident the cost factor of incapacity to work may be, absenteeism can only provide limited information about health at the workplace. After all, not every employee present is completely healthy and not every absent employee is ill.

Lack of motivation can also play a role in absenteeism. This can be caused, for example, by dissatisfaction with the management, the work organization/environment or the content of work, but also by lack of acknowledgement and recognition, conflicts in the team, overload or a lack of identification with the work.

In addition to work-related factors, individual factors such as one's own state of health, lifestyle or age are of course also relevant in the development of absenteeism. Family or financial reasons can also be responsible for absence. In addition, environmental influences lead to seasonal, natural increases in absenteeism, such as seasons in which infectious diseases occur more frequently (annual flu epidemics).

An increase in absences is often a warning signal that should not go unnoticed. As explained above, absenteeism has many causes and is more a symptom than a cause. They are the result of previous developments and a late indicator. It is therefore important to consider additional aspects that offer early indications of unhealthy developments (get more information here).

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Sick at work: Presenteeism

Employees who drag themselves sick to work ("presenteeism"), are by no means a marginal group. According to surveys, more than two thirds (68%) of employees in Germany do this on a regular basis. It costs.

Studies from the UK and US estimate that the cost of presenteeism is approximately $140 billion - $150 billion annually (Cooper & Dewe 2008). Women, in particular, report "postponing" their recovery until the weekend or using their free time to heal rather than calling in sick (DGB-Index Gute Arbeit 2016).

This results in considerable productivity losses. Employees who return to work despite illness are less productive, make more mistakes and have a higher risk of accidents and injuries. In the case of acute infectious diseases, such as flu, they may infect other team members. In addition, minor complaints are protracted and can lead to more serious or even chronic illnesses, which ultimately result in significantly longer downtimes. Overall, the cost of presenteeism is estimated to be three times higher than the cost of absenteeism (Hemp 2004).

But what is actually behind presenteeism? The most common reasons are a sense of duty and responsibility as well as solidarity and consideration for colleagues who would have to take on the extra work in the event of an absence. But the fear of job loss or expected professional disadvantages, e.g. with regard to promotion, also play a role. Additionally, if the overall economic situation of the company is tense, employees tend to come to work in cases of doubt (DGB-Index Gute Arbeit 2016; Steinke & Badura 2011).

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What to do? Team and leadership culture

The various causes of absenteeism demonstrate they can only partially be influenced by the company and not always avoided. But: One can prevent and reduce them through health-oriented guidance.

Internal evaluations at Bertelsmann in Germany show that absenteeism rates were lower in companies where employee satisfaction was higher, especially satisfaction with job conditions and management (Netta 2011, Bertelsmann 2017).

As a leader, use existing instruments (e.g. employee survey, team talks, performance and development dialogue) and seek exchange early on with your staff on topics such as working atmosphere, overdemand – or lack of challenge -, information and communication structures, participation and need for support. Only when the exact causes of problems are known can you influence absenteeism.

In addition to employees absent on sick leave, the topic of presenteeism also makes it clear that the health of those present must be carefully attended. Encourage an open and honest team approach to health and illness. In case of acute illness, employees should be able to recover without fear or a bad conscience. Be a role model, take time off when you need it to cure illness.

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