How To Handle Employees Calling in Sick

Taking a bite out of absenteeism; Communication can be key

A new year may usher in many changes, both positive and negative, but for some employers, the problems of absenteeism and lost productivity may remain. All businesses deal with these issues, but, especially for small to mid-sized companies, the combination can be perilous and costly. 

Being legitimately sick is one thing, and most companies have established and often generous sick leave policies. But that doesn’t mean abuses don’t occur. 

According to a 2013 CareerBuilder survey, 32 percent of professional adults said they called in sick when they weren’t actually ill. (The survey polled 3,484 workers and 2,099 employers). 

Among the most common reasons cited were:

  • Didn’t feel like going to work (33 percent)
  • Felt they needed to relax (28 percent)
  • Had a doctor’s appointment (24 percent)
  • Wanted to catch up on sleep (19 percent)
  • Wanted to run errands (14 percent) 

Unless a company requires a written excuse from a doctor, it can be difficult to determine if an employee is actually sick. The CareerBuilder survey noted that 30 percent of employers surveyed have checked up on employees — either by requiring a doctor’s note, calling the employee later in the day or checking the employee’s social media posts. 

“There’s valid absenteeism and then there are people abusing the system,” says Lisa Orndorff, manager of employee relations, engagement and global HR for the Society for Human Resource Management. “The number one thing is to have a conversation with the employee. Don’t jump to conclusions. Find out what’s going on.” 

She notes that good managers will have an open line of communication with their employees. Quite simply, that connection can do a lot to quell absenteeism. 

“A lot of times, an employee will choose not to come in because their engagement level has dropped significantly,” Orndorff says. “Also, employees are tired. People are fatigued.” 

Commute times, family demands and electronic devices can all lead to stress and disengagement of employees. And sometimes, people may feel they just need a day off, but that’s where communication comes in. 

“Employees are more engaged when they have a relationship with their boss,” she adds. If an employee feels more comfortable talking with their boss, they may be less likely to let them down with a false excuse. 

Following up with an employee after an absence is wise as well, says Orndorff. If an employee claims to be out with a sick child, express concern when the employee returns, asking, “How is your daughter today?” That compassionate address, rather than a policing approach, sends a message of concern to the employee. 

Orndorff says employers can begin by establishing a corporate culture regarding absenteeism. “That’s something that should be communicated from the very start,” she says. Treat all employees the same. Orndorff says it can hurt the morale of the other employees if one person seems to always “get away with it.” 

But what if employees just need a day off? Should a company institute a “mental health day” benefit? 

Orndorff says, “You don’t want to ‘policy’ people to death.” Again, she agrees that open communication about an employee’s needs is a better preventive measure. 

What if employees just need a day off? Should a plant institute a “mental health day” benefit?


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