Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Absence management and staff motivation can boast productivity and help to contain unemployment

Despite some signs of economic recovery can be already identified, the international job market can still be considered, to put it mildly, rather uncertain. Unemployment figures at large are in fact still considerably high; in the UK, the unemployment rate has reached 7.8 percent and things are not unfortunately going any better in the other European countries.
The aftermath of the international crisis is still visible to everybody and it is certain that inertia does not represent the most appropriate approach to confront the current situation. In order for employers to properly address the issue these should rather perform a number of activities aiming in a worst case scenario at halting the current growth trend of unemployment, which may be also influenced, albeit only in part, by the increasing rate of employee absenteeism.

A research carried out by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) revealed that in 2009, only in the UK, went wasted 27 million working days by reason of the “throw a sickie” phenomenon accounting for a loss of £17 billion and an average direct cost of £596 per employee. Taking heed of the loss of productivity, the cost of sick pay itself and the cost of the employees called to cover for the absent employees, the total cost of the phenomenon rises at £30 billion.

The consequences of absenteeism are clearly remarkable so that it is definitely time for organizations to take appropriate action. The most effective approach to tackle the problem is clearly that to try and understand its causes and the reasons behind it. A remarkable 65 percent of employers deem that the largest part of sickness absence is not genuinely related to illness; finding out which the real reasons for absence are hence definitely assumes a greater importance to identify and develop appropriate absence management strategies.
In essence, the main reason for employers never having seriously faced the problem is that the only perspective these have considered to date has been exclusively punitive. Since this type of approach may have considerable downsides for employers and lead to a deterioration of employee relations, businesses have traditionally averted taking action. Absenteeism figures, nonetheless, have proved that this approach is sorely detrimental.
To reverse the trend, the first thing employers should definitely do is to conduct an in-depth investigation aiming at identifying what behind the phenomenon. Organizations could be thus able to attain two objectives at one time: reduce absenteeism, saving in turn the large amount of money related to its costs and enhance productivity, contributing to increase the business revenues. A higher level of productivity would ultimately enable the business to grow and recruit additional staff or, the worse comes to the worst, not needing to make any employee redundant.

Employees prone to feign illness, once addressed the problems keeping them away from their job desks, should find it pointless continuing to report sick and may start to appreciate the benefits of attendance and of contributing to their employer success and growth. One of the most likely reasons for staff feigning illness, as acknowledged by many throw a sickie “addicted”, is the lack of flexible working opportunities.
BT is one of those organizations believing that giving its staff flexible working options provides valuable benefits to the company. Giving individuals the chance to work in a way that best suits their needs, be it remotely or part-time, the business contributes to favour its employees’ work-life balance, which in turn produces a positive knock-on effect in that employees, feeling supported by their employers, will be more engaged and thus more productive.
An additional activity employers should consider to perform to prevent high absenteeism rates is reviewing their absence management policies. Offering individuals “flexible” ways to request a day-off by phone once some adverse circumstances should arise, for instance, may effectually help employers to curb the phenomenon. Throw a sickie basically represents the only option available to employees to stay home in the event something unexpected should occur to them or their family members.

Technological advances can actually help employers, too. Software solutions enabling companies to gather and keep up-to-date and reliable records of their staff absence spells and lengths could in fact prove to be particularly useful. These systems can indeed help organizations to tackle and determine the typical absence patters directly linked to the unfolding of particular events, such us the World Cup or some employee typical bad habits, like “Saint Monday” (the employees’ preference for absence on Mondays), absences associated with shifts starting at a particular time and other similar circumstances. Organizations can actually adopt a few different methods to monitor the phenomenon; reportedly, the most appreciated is the Bradford Factor, developed in the 1980s by the Bradford University School of Management.

This approach essentially enables employers to calculate an index, which is obtained by the following multiplication:
B = S2 x D
S is the total number of separate absences or spells of absence,

D is the individual total number of days of absence,

B is the Bradford Factor, also known as Bradford Formula or Bradford Index.
The number of spells and total days of absence have to be considered with reference to a specific period of time, usually a year.
For example:
10 one-day absence episodes: 10 x 10 x 10 = 1,000
1 ten-day absence: 1 x 1 x 10 = 10

5 two-day absences: 5 x 5 x 10 = 250
2 five-day absences: 2 x 2 x 10 = 40
To use this Index, employers should identify different thresholds and the action to be associated with each of them. Table 1 shows an example of a “heat map”, offered by the Bradford Factor Calculator, based on three BF thresholds:

-      Yellow (BF 45) – This may be considered as a level at which, whether the employee should be absent from work for additional days, disciplinary action might be taken;

-      Orange (BF 100) – At this stage managers can start disciplinary action;
Red (BF 900) – This is the highest threshold, managers may at this point seriously consider the individual dismissal.

Source: Bradford Factor Calculator

Table 1

Managers at large, nonetheless, habitually ignore the absence metrics prepared by HR on account of these disregarding the long hours and unpaid overtime employees are used to work. Properly monitoring employee absence, notwithstanding, should enable both employees and businesses to take responsibility and become conscious respectively of their and of their staff absence trends, before these may represent a serious problem for the organization and thus for the individuals themselves.

Monitoring absenteeism can prove to be useful, but the most effectual way to control it invariably remains motivating staff. A more motivated and engaged workforce is obviously less prone to feign illness and to absenteeism in general. Enhancing staff morale is a powerful enabler of motivation and hence an effective driver of productivity. Different individuals with different personalities, traits and wants are likely to differently respond to a strategy aiming at boosting individual morale so that a bespoke approach should be definitely taken into consideration. Some general advices can be, nonetheless, identified.

Communication, communication, communication
In many organizations it is rather widespread the “them and us” culture according to which employees tend to see the business management as somewhat of an enemy. This is indeed one of the main reasons behind employee absenteeism and high turnover: “employees join organizations but they leave their managers” (Buckingham and Coffman, 2005). Communication, or rather, the establishment of a powerful two-way communication channel aiming at listening to the employee voice can prove to be of paramount importance to bridge the gap between management and staff.

Irrespective of the means (focus groups, large groups and the like), discussing problems with employees and making these knowledgeable of the difficulties the organization is eventually experiencing will invariably prove to be a powerful and effective morale-booster. Large group methods, for instance, putting in the same room managers and employees with the aim of addressing critical issues, enable employees to have their say and express their opinions to the company management. The responsibility to fix the problems will clearly ultimately rest with managers, but employee involvement and participation may prove to be extremely motivational and would represent a valuable opportunity for a company to get fresh and creative ideas.
Research shows that:
ü  Engagement improves where employers are communicating openly and honestly with their employees;
ü  Many organizations are rediscovering the critical importance of keeping communications channels with employers open, frank and sincere;
ü  Just asking employees for feedback about how engaged they feel represents a driver of engagement in itself;
ü  Informal communications are just as effective as formal communications for improving engagement.
Make employees aware of the valuable contribution they provide to the organization
Employee morale is also sorely influenced by the individuals’ awareness of contributing to the organizational objectives. Employees who receive constant feedback about the significance of the results they produce and the value they create definitely feel more motivated.
Whether individuals filling some professional roles are in a position to better perceive the significance of their contribution, this is not necessarily the case, for instance, of the shop floor. Nonetheless, these roles are clearly contributing to the achievement of the organizational objectives and to create value, too.
Motivation, to this extent, is influenced by three psychological states:
ü  “Experienced meaningfulness” – that is the importance linked by employees to the job these performs. The more employees perceive their job as important, the higher their level of motivation;
ü  “Experienced responsibility” – which refers to the degree of responsibility an employee actually has on the quality and quantity of his/her output;
ü  “Knowledge of results” – which regards the importance attached by an employee to his manager feedback.
These “psychological states” are in turn influenced by the task features, namely:
ü  The variety of skills necessary to perform the task;
ü  The significance of the task performed: whether the task is valued, individuals will feel much more motivated;
ü  The latitude allowed to an employee when performing his/her task.
Ensure to provide individuals the training they need to properly perform their activities
Training is a key factor for individual development. Providing employees with growth opportunities is fundamental for their motivation and retention, and key to meet individual expectations and organizational needs. Talented individuals whose skills and abilities are not used and enhanced are likely to leave the organization for more challenging and compelling opportunities.
Formal and informal training programmes are useful to help managers achieving several HRM objectives, like: profitability, productivity, quality, commitment, social legitimacy and reputation. So powerful are the effects yielded by training as to many organizations, such as McDonald, KFC, Morrisons and Vodafone, having agreed in the UK specific programmes with the Learning Skills Council (LSC) enabling their employees to gain some NVQs.
Offering individuals training opportunities and development prospects helps employers to meet their employees’ motivational needs and encourage individuals to attain higher standards of performance.
Introduce flexible working patterns
For many employees managing their work and take care at the same time of their personal responsibilities definitely represents a daunting feat; more often than not, employees struggle to achieve an acceptable work/life balance whose lack is often the cause of stress and of a useless waste of energy. Whether employees would have the chance to enjoy the necessary flexibility at work, these could clearly live more relaxed lives, be more focused on their work and ultimately perform at their utmost.
Reviewing the company policies with the aim of offering employees a better work-life balance would let them understand that their employer really cares about them.

Allowing employees the time to make personal calls during working hours in order to ensure that the people these care for are good as well as offering staff flexible working patterns would certainly contribute to alleviate individual stress. Yet, as discussed earlier, reviewing absence management policies enabling individuals to call from home to ask for a day off, in the event a sudden unexpected circumstance arises, would unquestionably help to enhance the organizational climate and thus employee motivation.
The introduction and implementation of these and other similar measures may effectually help individuals to go to work relaxed and put aside their personal concerns after having passed the organizational premises threshold.
Morale-boosting strategies can be pursued in many ways, what matters the most in order to be successful is becoming acquainted with the employees’ real needs, expectations and aspirations.
Offering opportunities for growth and career prospects to those who do not want any responsibility would represent a massive blunder, as it would be not offering these possibilities to those people showing to have a genuine interest in these opportunities and the qualities to accept them. Knowing employees and their needs is of paramount importance; carrying out an employee survey to gather the necessary information is the best way to start, but subsequently consistent practical action must be taken.

Motivating employees and preparing a strong, active and present workforce can definitely help employers to develop their business and contribute thus to increase the number of employment opportunities in the relevant labour market.

Longo, R., (2010), Absence management and staff motivation can boast productivity and help to contain unemployment, HR Professionals, [online].