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Can hard data cure employee sickies?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/gpointstudio)

Businesses cannot begin to reduce employee absence until they understand what’s causing it. This is a real challenge because traditional employee engagement surveys don’t shed much light on why some people are so unhappy at work that they decide to throw regular “sickies”. Disengagement, where employees who are not committed to their jobs tend to find excuses not to come in, comes in many forms. It can be due to lack of respect for management or feelings of unfair treatment. It can also be due to lack of feedback from managers or a perceived lack of freedom or flexibility. Also, no one wants to come into a work environment where conflict is rife. The importance of maintaining good employee morale in your organisation cannot be stressed enough. Treating employees with respect and giving them freedom to make decisions is the backbone of a healthy work environment.

Absenteeism hits company profits hard. And it isn’t just the direct costs of paying workers while they are off sick. Absenteeism can decrease revenue if employees with specific roles aren't present. Employees who sell services or build and deliver a product — such as workers in manufacturing, software engineering, consulting or sales — simply have less time to hit their goals when absent, potentially decreasing revenue. When you add in all the indirect costs, including lost production and paying for staff cover, absenteeism can consume as much as 15 per cent of an organisation’s payroll, according to one study.  Innocent absenteeism - one in which the employee is absent from work due to genuine cause or reason isn’t the real problem. However, culpable absenteeism - one in which a person is absent from work without any genuine reason or cause, is a problem.

Things aren’t looking to get any better. In the UK, for example, a recent survey found that the average level of absence is now 6.6 days per employee, per year – compared to 6.3 days in 2016. Absence levels are even higher in the public sector (8.5 days per employee) and within larger organisations.

Reasons for absenteeism 

Building on previous studies, research by Professor Kesti and his team has shown that the quality of working life is influenced by three key factors: goals and creativity, social cohesion and identity and physical and emotional safety. The first two factors are known to have a positive effect on the quality of working life. Clear goals that unleash employees’ creativity are likely to promote excellent performance, whilst strong social cohesion – team spirit, in other words – generates positive energy, along with high productivity. A low level of physical and emotional safety, on the other hand, creates a hostile working environment full of dissatisfied employees who are unlikely to perform at their best and potentially be candidates for consistent absenteeism.

While some engagement issues are simply due to the wrong people in the wrong position, many can be solved with tools that empower and recognise employees. Once standards have been set, you can explore other ideas such as paid time off, workplace ‘fun days’, or other events to boost morale. Keep dialogue open and ask for feedback to get more ideas from your team.

However, it might now be possible to unravel the reasons for absenteeism and reduce it dramatically. This is what a major restaurant chain in Finland discovered whilst trying to tackle a completely different problem – low customer satisfaction at one of its outlets. The company brought in HR consultant and academic Marko Kesti to find out what the issues were in this restaurant and to suggest improvements.

Professor Kesti, and a team from the University of Lapland has spent over a decade researching the factors that drive both employee engagement and financial performance. Using data from this research, they developed the Quality of Work Life (QWL) Index, a model now helping many companies analyse employee feedback and predict productivity and profitability. Professor Kesti’s model is the only publicly released one that has been peer reviewed and accepted, and measures the right things – those that can predict profitability and productivity.

The online QWL survey, which is based on the Index, consists of just 15 questions. This makes it quick and easy to complete. It’s the data behind the QWL Index and the automatic analysis of employee feedback that makes this survey unique. 


The QWL survey measures these three quality of work life factors across five areas: leadership, line management, culture, skills and processesAn online tool then analyses the results, identifying strengths and development areas and – crucially - recommending actions to address any issues and increase productivity.

Using this approach, the restaurant chain was able to pinpoint the cause of the problems at its most poorly performing branch. Staff at this restaurant felt that nobody cared about them, so they in turn didn’t care about their work, and would call in sick at the slightest provocation. But by measuring employee engagement, making improvements, taking more measurements and making yet more improvements, the company achieved startling results. Not only did the underperforming restaurant climb from number 57 in the company’s customer satisfaction ranking to number eight, it also saw sick leave fall by 75 per cent. Not many HR projects deliver such massive payback.

If organisations can use data to understand why people are absent from work without any genuine reason or cause then they stand to recoup significant losses via payroll and also potentially improve employee engagement. Everyone’s is a winner.

Juha Huttunen, serial entrepreneur and founder/CEO, VibeCatch (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/gpointstudio

Juha Huttunen is a serial entrepreneur and founder/CEO of VibeCatch.