Absenteeism is defined as a "failure to show up for scheduled work" (Johns, 1997). Whether involuntary or voluntary, legitimized or not, white or black or grey… Many researchers are not concerned with that. The line is often thin, and as a manager or HR professional, you will rarely know for sure. That is why it is important to always keep a dual focus: a focus on health promotion and illness prevention (~involuntary absence) and a focus on employee motivation and mindset (~voluntary absence) (Lokke, 2022).
To better understand the possible influence of a supervisor on (all types of) absenteeism, it is essential to know that four mechanisms can be at play.
Attendance or absence is influenced by…
- The demands (and resources) of the job.
Absence is the result of the employee's perception that they cannot handle what is being asked. E.g. "There is so much work to do. I can't stop thinking about it, and I can't sleep anymore!" (Job Demands Resources perspective).
- Job satisfaction and commitment to the organization.
Absence is the result of the employee’s low feelings of satisfaction and commitment. They are so low that the employee needs to step away from the negative situation to stay mentally healthy. E.g. "Now we'll get negative press again. I'm ashamed of my work!" (Withdrawal perspective)
- The expected response to the presence or absence.
Absence is the result of a trade-off where not working produces more positive results than working. E.g. "I'm quickly going to help my friend with the move; I only have boring meetings lined up today anyway". (Expectancy perspective)
- The social relationships at work.
Absence is the result of observed behavior of others (e.g. "if everyone here seems to take bad days off; then so will I!"), or the relationship with them (e.g. "no one notices whether I'm here or not any way") (Social dynamics perspective)
So what does that mean in practice?
First and foremost, an absenteeism policy in an organization should always stand on two legs: health promotion and illness prevention on the one hand, and motivating employees on the other.
Furthermore, it is worth taking a closer look at the team's work context: is it possible to reduce demands? To ease the workload? To temporize the work? To determine more clearly who is responsible for which tasks?
And it is worth training managers on how to prevent and deal with absenteeism. E.g. by making them aware of their own health behavior (role model), or by teaching them to propagate the desired absenteeism mindset (e.g. health-focused mindset: sick & not working = ok, sick & working = not ok). Or by training them to provide social support or to help employees develop the right coping style.
Is the translation to practice too vague? A little. After all, the literature on the effectiveness of absenteeism interventions is still in its infancy (Lokke, 2022). Fortunately, this is gradually changing. Not in the least thanks to organizations that understand the importance of building absenteeism interventions upon scientific knowledge, like Mensura, Bpost, and B-Tonic (subsidiary of Baloise Insurance): together with them, Eva Geluk and myself are investigating "What makes an absenteeism intervention work?"
Learn everything about this topic in the free webinar "What makes absenteeism interventions work?"
Antwerp Management School, Bpost, Mensura en B-Tonic (a subsidiary of Baloise) joined forces to develop solutions for successful reintegration and prevention. By putting theory into practice and measuring the impact, we are building an arsenal of interventions that actually work. For everyone.
- Johns, G. (1997). Contemporary research on absence from work: Correlates, causes and consequences. International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 12, 115–173.
- Løkke, A.-K. (2022), "Leadership and its influence on employee absenteeism: a qualitative review", Management Decision, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/MD-05-2021-0693