When your employees are often absent, whether it be short term or long term, your business takes a toll, period. Obviously your employees have the right to take their sick leave and annual leave, as is required by law in New Zealand, but where is the line between their rights, and your business costs? Some estimates say that businesses in New Zealand have lost over one billion dollars each year due to employee absences, which is an overwhelming number to think about.

Managing absences can be extremely challenging, and requires a solid understanding of employment law, which can be hard to grasp if you’re not a Human Resource expert. But to help you gain a broader understanding of how to best handle absences, we’ve put together a quick guide.

Review company policies

We can’t stress this enough – if you don’t have strong policies to stand behind, you can’t enforce them! Basically what we’re saying is, if you don’t have a strong policy for absence management, or worse, don’t have one at all, how can you expect your employees to know what to do or what is expected of them?

Take a look at your absence policy. It should be clear and easy for anyone to understand, not just managers. For absences, it should state the steps that an employee needs to take if they are out sick or how to request time off.

Having a good policy isn’t enough, however. You also need to make sure that it’s easily accessible and that your employees actually know that it exists. If you’re a larger company, it’s a good idea to make sure that you have online modules for new employees to go through and review all the company policies, including this one. There should also be annual refresher courses on the important ones. If you’re a smaller company, make sure you have a handbook or at least have the policies posted somewhere where employees can easily look at them. Take a look at the employment NZ page for more information on writing a good policy.

Get the data

If you don’t know what you’re working with, how can you fix it? Getting data on your employee absences is the next step towards understanding the big picture. More importantly, when you have the numbers, you can potentially find patterns and therefore areas to improve.

There are several great ways to measure absenteeism, but do what makes the most sense for your type of company. We recommend pulling data such as what types of absences are being taken, how long they’re taking them, what type of employee it is (i.e. casual, full time), and what department they are in. At the most basic level, this will show you if there is a problem area, and be able to address it with line management.

Find the root

Too many companies glaze over absence management, and claim that employees will always take “sickies” or abuse their time off. While this might be part truth, there can also be a cultural norm that’s been building for years, and is creating a culture of absence.

Often the best way to find out what is happening is to simply talk to your employees. If you find that one particular employee often takes Monday’s off sick, or another has been taking a sick day once a month for ages, have a quick chat with them. You might discover that they have a monthly appointment they can’t miss, and don’t want to waste their annual leave on it. Or perhaps their childcare is sporadic on Monday’s, and it’s easier to just take the day off sick. These kinds of conversations can reveal hardships your employees are going through, and can enable you to help them work through it.

Over communicate

When in doubt, always over communicate. What we mean by this is to stay in regular contact with employees on sick leave, especially if they’re on long term leave. The goal will always be to get an employee back to work, but you can’t do this if you aren’t keeping in touch with them and working on a return to work plan.

Employers often assume if the employee is on long term leave, they will just come back when they’re ready to come back. In all actuality, it’s your job to try and get them back as quickly as possible, not only for your business’s sake, but for the employee’s mental and physical health as well. Even if you can bring an employee back on a part time basis or doing light duties, this will speed up the process dramatically.  

Train your managers

Your line management is your first point of defense with absence management. They ought to be the ones having the conversations with their staff about their absences and finding out the root cause, then working out solutions. Unfortunately, many managers are put into a position of authority with little to no training, and often just because they’re good at their job, rather than having strong managerial skills.

Consider sending managers to training, or if you have the skills and resources, have an onsite training. Start with induction, as this is where managers are meeting their employees and explaining the policies to the new employee. Then move on to the law around leave, and make sure managers completely understand it. Use this guide from employment NZ for more information about a training plan.  

Watch out for discrimination

Finally, watch out for any discriminatory behaviour. For instance, watch for managers who aren’t treating all of their staff equally, or who are refusing to grant leave for certain types of employees. Disability discrimination is against the law, and you’ll need to be vigilant to ensure it isn’t happening.

It might seem a bit overwhelming, but understanding and improving absence management will end up saving your company heaps of money. More importantly, improved absenteeism will also increase employee morale, and create a company culture that everyone wants to be a part of and contribute to.

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