Employers: Foster faith and trust to battle absenteeism

If you run a business, you’ve dealt with absenteeism. Employees calling in or not showing up to work is the bane of countless employers. Suddenly, your carefully planned processes are thrown into chaos by the unexpected absences of your people. Your customers’ expectations are not being met. That affects your company’s reputation--and your bottom line. And you’re not alone.

The United States leads the developed world in the prevalence of unplanned absenteeism. And it’s costing businesses dearly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that absenteeism costs US employers nearly $225 billion in productivity losses annually. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) indicated, even prior to COVID-19, that unplanned absences directly impact productivity loss in the US up to 36%. 




Calling out call-ins.

As any manager knows, the indirect effects of each unplanned absence ripple through an organization. SHRM found that supervisor productivity was typically reduced by 15.7% as they were unexpectedly tasked with adjusting workflows. And co-workers were nearly always less productive those days. Coupled with longer-term impacts on morale and engagement, it’s a bleak picture.

When the C-Suite asks Human Resources to take action to improve attendance, HR is contending with an increasingly complex regulatory environment that protects the absences. HR’s answer to dealing with unscheduled call-offs often is to implement stricter policies, which invariably leave employees feeling cornered, unsupported, and disrespected with even less adherence to time-off guidelines. So, what can you do?



The stick isn't working.

Recent research is starting to back up what employers with more trusting philosophies have been saying for years. The Hartford reports on a phenomenon that on its surface seems really counter-intuitive: relaxing your sick day policies actually results in employees taking fewer sick days, while Careerbuilder.com polls of its subscribers found that 37% of employees deliberately work when they are sick so that they can accrue sick days for flexible time off.


The Hartford study also showed something else familiar to most managers: employees more often call in “sick” for reasons other than personal illness, including unexpected family situations, or simply stress and burnout. Coupled with Career Builder’s data, this makes perfect sense. These findings support a switch to more trusting policies and practices to minimize absence from the workplace.

What drives employees to abuse their time off? How do you deal with employees who can and should be at work, but call in because they simply don’t want to be there? The answer is simple:  foster a positive mindset among your employees and take steps so that your organization is a place where your workers want to be.

This tactic reinforces our mantra at Wayforward: There’s always another move.

Simple doesn’t mean easy and without effort. You and your management team are going to need to come to terms with and let go of a lot of the ideas around PTO that seemed intuitive in the past.


Plant some carrots.

Wayforward can guide you toward a better solution.

There are two key elements to our solution. Both are significant departures from how most managers are used to approaching this issue, and most organizations’ training programs. Our solution requires a big leap in thinking, but it’s proven effective in tackling this issue beyond what our clients could have hoped for when they first engaged us.

First, trust. This word gets thrown around in leadership content all the time. But what, specifically, does it need to mean when addressing absenteeism? In this context, trust means that an employer needs to have trust in its people.

It’s time to pull back the throttle on negative reinforcement and punishment. Your absence policy can no longer be the vehicle that drives your people into work. Trust requires an employer to set down the stick in favor of the carrot. And that carrot is not a reward. It doesn’t mean prizes for perfect attendance. It isn’t free snacks or bean bag chairs or ping pong tables. It is a genuine emotional connection that an employer fosters with its employees by making them a valued and integral part of achieving goals.

An organization must ensure that its employees feel like first string players--not cogs in a machine or numbers on a timesheet. There are tried-and-true practices that, if adhered to by members of your management team, will get you there swiftly. Then you will have created a state of operations where employees want to be at work to fulfill their important role in your shared mission.

The second essential element is faith. Specifically, an individual employee must have faith in their employer. And faith is a two-way street: you trust your employees to be there when you need them, and they need to trust that you, as their employer, will be there for them when they need you most.

An organization needs its people for predictable day-to-day operations to keep it and its systems running as planned most of the time. However, an employee needs their employer most when things turn unpredictable. When emergencies arise. When their basement floods. When their child is sick. An employer and its policies shouldn’t be an additional source of worry at times like these. If employees have to question whether their personal circumstances will pose a risk to keeping their job, it will foster fear, lack of transparency and honesty, and drive a wedge between them and their employer. 

Instead, an employer should work to earn their employees faith and trust, creating a mindset among all of their employees that they will be a source of stability, strength, and support in difficult times.


To some, this may sound like fluff. But for employers willing to evolve their thinking around PTO, creating sustainable internal operating systems that are not shaken by unpredictable absences of people is within reach. If you’re ready to make a change, but are feeling overwhelmed or just want an expert opinion, we’re here to help. Schedule a consult with Wayforward. 

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