Absenteeism in the Workplace: Addressing the “sickie culture”
24 January 2020
Sick leave is an inherent part of most New Zealand employee workplace entitlements. But we all know a person who takes it too far, by taking every second of paid time off regardless of whether it’s needed. Hopefully that person is not your employee, but unfortunately absenteeism is part of the greater issue of the entitlement culture which pervades the New Zealander workforce, also known as the “sickie culture”.
What’s the Issue?
It is estimated that absenteeism costs New Zealand over $1 billion per year. Absenteeism incurs significant costs to a business in a number of ways: the paid leave itself, the cost of covering their absence through the use of temporary staff or paying overtime to existing workers, and decreased productivity and impacts on staff morale.
What is Absenteeism?
For full-time employees, Kiwis are guaranteed 5 days paid sick leave a year after the first six months of employment, then a further 5 days after each subsequent 12 month period. Paid sick leave can be used for any instance where staff are genuinely unfit for work because of an illness or injury. It accumulates from year to year, but if an employee ever exhausts their entitlement to paid sick leave, they may proceed to take unpaid leave or annual leave by agreement with their employer. Absenteeism goes beyond a few stomach bugs and flu per year, and can be defined as a “habitual pattern of absence”. It includes all employee absences which are unusual or excessive. A few examples of absenteeism include:
• large numbers of sick days per year
• systematic pattern of absence (i.e. one day every week)
• frequently leaving work early or arriving late
• taking excessively long breaks
Causes of Absenteeism
There are a number of potential causes of employee absenteeism, and most fall within one of two categories: either the employee seeks to avoid a problem at work such as bullying or heavy workloads by feigning illness, or the problem causes genuine illness to the individual and prevents them from working. Other employees may take days off to meet alternative responsibilities, such as to care for children or elderly family members, or because they are job hunting.
Culture of Entitlement
One of the most concerning causes of absenteeism is the entitlement culture, whereby employees see their sick days as a guaranteed entitlement rather than a just-in-case fall-back. Paid sick leave is meant to keep genuinely unwell employees away from the workplace to avoid contagion and prevent exacerbation of the injury or illness, as it is likely that without a paid leave entitlement, some employees would attend work while sick to avoid the financial blow of a day without pay. But there are individuals out there who exploit this. Employees who take their sick leave as soon as it accrues just because it is there, or who give notice of their resignation and then proceed to work it out through paid sick leave because they know they’ll lose it otherwise. This culture of entitlement is very hard to dislodge and may be systemic in many businesses.
The first step to addressing a “sickie culture” is to identify the causes of absenteeism in your workplace. Is it a lack of engagement or motivation causing your employees to prefer to stay at home than attend work? If so, consider solutions for revitalising the workplace – can you implement an incentive system to reward performance? What about setting up social or sporting events to reconnect your employees with their colleagues and the workplace culture? If the cause is stress resulting from heavy workloads, think about how you can reduce the strain and encourage stressed employees to approach you before it overwhelms them. If the cause is carer responsibilities, can you offer flexible working arrangements so parents can meet both sets of obligations?
If you identify the cause as the entitlement culture, it is important that you eliminate it as soon as possible. Implement clear policies that outline your expectations on each employee, including guidelines for when they should and should not attend work, and when they need to provide medical evidence of their unfitness for work. Hold team meetings to emphasise the importance of commitment and to demonstrate how absenteeism crumbles the morale of the other employees who obligingly turn up to work every day.
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HR 101: sick leave