How to deal with staff absences

01 May 2022

Hannah Walters, freelance writer, considers how to tackle the issue of staff absence, while taking a look back at how it’s been handled in the past

High levels of staff absence cost UK organisations billions of pounds each year, which can equate to hundreds of pounds per employee. As a result of work-related stress, mental health and Covid-related illnesses, employers report absences have as much as doubledi over the last couple of years.

This places a significant financial burden on organisations that may already be under pressure due to elevated levels of inflation, in addition to the current global political situation, among other things.

With staff members away from the workplace, businesses are more likely to struggle to meet their goals. Productivity, efficiency, creativity and innovation suffer, key objectives and goals are harder to meet, customer service standards decline, and it becomes much harder to create a sense of community at work.

Common causes of absence include:

  • Covid-19

  • bullying and harassment

  • discrimination

  • stress at work

  • burnout

  • mental health issues

  • long-term health problems

  • bereavement.

There are several approaches to tackling staff absences. Here are a few effective ways your organisation can reduce staff absence and get your team feeling both engaged and pro-active.


Ensure your attendance policy is clear

Every organisation should have an attendance policyii which outlines what’s expected, how absences are dealt with and employee rights and obligations. It will include information such as:

  • the terms and conditions for work

  • how the employer monitors any staff absence

  • company sick pay and how it interacts with statutory sick pay

  • how and when employees should inform the organisation they can’t attend

  • when workers need to complete a self-certificate form or when there’s a requirement to provide a doctor’s note

  • when any return to work discussions might be necessary.

Most organisations include their attendance policy in their employee handbook or share and explain it to new team members during the onboarding process. However, this information isn’t always retained, especially if staff have been with your organisation for several years or find it confusing.

Check and update your existing attendance policy, ensure it’s clear and that your staff can access this information whenever required.


Use or increase holiday entitlement

Workers will be allocated a minimum holiday entitlement and it’s common for multiple people to want the same day off. You could be left searching for last-minute solutions to try and meet the needs of every person in your organisation.

To address this issue quickly and effectively, consider increasing holiday entitlement, perhaps using a sliding scale based on level of service or attendance at work. This may not be an option for many organisations, particularly given the raft of additional and increased costs lots of businesses are currently facing.

You could, alternatively, ask your employees to use their existing holiday entitlement if their absence would be an issue. However, there are some limitations to using this approach. Waldrons Solicitorsiii  state: ‘This can only be done when you can give a period of notice that is at least twice the period of holiday you want them to take’.


Understand why staff are absent

There are many reasons why staff may be absent. You should understand these may be for individual reasons that are sometimes unavoidable. There are many ways to understand staff absences:

  • keep track of absences

  • speak to employees

  • show understanding and compassion where required

  • regularly communicate with your team to build trust

  • be approachable and leave your office door open.


Consider flexible working

If your team member is under stress at home or has multiple responsibilities to balance, coming to a flexible working arrangement might be an effective way to reduce absenteeism.


Talk to your staff to understand the reasons behind why they’re absent. You may be able to offer additional help or make adjustments to accommodate their situation.


This helps to ensure you retain key talent, while also:

  • reducing stress levels

  • boosting morale and increasing employee engagement

  • improving the overall quality of work.

Even one or two days a week can make a significant difference to both parties.

According to UK law, employees can currently request flexible working after 26 weeks of employmentiv with the same employer, however, many organisations choose to take a more pro-active approach to deal with absenteeism. The government is currently analysing the feedback of its consultation – ‘Making flexible working the defaultv, which considered, amongst other things, making the right to request flexible working a day one right.


Offer attendance incentives

Attendance incentives can be an excellent way to reduce staff absenteeism by offering positive reinforcement.

They’ve been successfully adopted by many organisations who have experienced problems with staff absence.

The Royal Mail achieved an 18% reduction in absenteeism over the 2005/06 financial yearvi , thanks to its scheme.

By offering awards, recognition, cash incentives, prize draws or bonuses that are unique to your business, you can achieve comparable results, while also improving staff engagement, ownership, motivation, and a sense of teamwork.


Create a healthy working environment

Stress is proven to be a significant contributor to levels of employee absenteeism. According to the Health and Safety Executive, 822,000 workersvii suffered from either work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2020 and 2021.

Luckily, many of these factors can be addressed by making improvements to the working physical and social environment:

  • ensure the temperature and light

  • levels are conducive to comfort as well as productivity

  • organise regular team-building activities and events

  • create a clear diversity and inclusion policy to reduce discrimination

  • offer regular coffee breaks

  • create several wellness zones in the working space

  • consider creating a corporate wellness or benefits package.


Dealing with staff absences

Absenteeism can cost organisations a significant amount of money while also affecting productivity, innovation, teamwork and creating unnecessary staffing issues.

Update your attendance policy, understand why staff are absent and consider using holiday entitlement, benefits packages or even creating an incentive scheme to reduce the burden on your organisation.

This will all help in ensuring your business can run effectively and achieve the success it deserves. 












Featured in the May 2022 issue of Professional in Payroll, Pensions and Reward. Correct at time of publication.