How to reduce employee absence levels


The average UK employee is absent from work for 6.5 days a year. This places an inordinate amount of strain on businesses in terms of the productivity levels, company reputation and, subsequently, financial cost. Genuine sickness is sometimes unavoidable, but many absences can be avoided by promoting a healthier workplace environment, improving working conditions and conducting return-to-work interviews. High absence levels are often the result of work-related issues, including stress, tiredness and general dissatisfaction, so it’s important to identify and tackle causes of staff illness as early as possible.

Causes of employee absence

Considering that the average UK worker spends 1/3 of their adult life at work, it’s hardly surprising  that our jobs have a major impact on our health and wellbeing. Employers have a duty of care toward their workers to ensure working conditions are safe, healthy and fair. Additionally, it’s important to determine whether employees are facing any personal or work-life balance issues that could be affecting their ability to work effectively. In such instances, it may be possible to make reasonable workplace adjustments to help them cope and reduce the amount of time they take off.

Common causes of employee absence include:

  • Working conditions
  • Poor company culture and employee relations
  • Harassment and bullying
  • Poor management quality
  • Long hours or inappropriate shift patterns
  • Exhaustion
  • Stress
    Mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression
  • Family problems or commitments
  • Work-related injuries
  • Unrealistic expectations from the employer
  • Lack of appreciation
  • Poor diet and lack of exercise
  • Job design
  • Boredom at work
  • Chronic illness

Employee sickness absence costs UK businesses, and subsequently the economy, around £16 billion per year. Some people are just bad employees, but most absences can be effectively managed and minimised by improving working conditions, showing appreciation and treating employees fairly, promoting a culture of wellbeing, and having honest discussions with workers to identify any work-related or personal issues you could help them with.

Always bear in mind that your workers are people with personal lives and problems – they’re not just robots who are here to serve you. Sure, you pay them, but you have a moral and legal duty to ensure their welfare at work. It’s in your best interests to value them, provide support, and help them overcome challenges in the workplace. Valued, happy and healthy employees are more loyal and productive, so don’t dismiss someone as a bad worker before investigating the root cause of continued absence. In the long run, it will be more cost-effective and good for business.

Reasonable workplace adjustments

To get a clear understanding of why your employees are absent, you need to have an open and honest discussion with them. Show understanding and be sensitive about the issues they are facing. Whether the problem is related to their working conditions or personal life, try to find a solution that benefits the employee and doesn’t have a negative impact on your business.

Reasonable workplace adjustments that are effective at reducing absence and increasing productivity include:

  • Flexible working hours
  • Working from home arrangements
  • Change or variation of job tasks
  • Moving the employee to a new team
  • Giving the employee a private office or quiet workspace
  • Improving their working environment
  • Offering reduced hours
  • Changing shift patterns
  • Improving communication
  • Addressing workplace harassment or bullying
  • Allowing for a period of extended time off
  • Providing occupational health services
  • Offering counselling
  • Training
  • Assigning a new line manager
  • Ensuring breaks are provided and taken
  • Reducing overtime expectations
  • Introducing incentives and perks
  • Providing childcare facilities

Many of these adjustments are feasible for business of all sizes. Flexible working and home working are becoming increasingly popular due to the challenges of achieving a healthy work-life balance. As an employer, you are legally required to consider flexible working request from your staff. They may not be aware of this, so you should inform them of this option if it’s something you could reasonably accommodate.

Return-to-work interviews

Informal return-to-work interviews are used in many organisations as part of their absence policy. The purpose of this meeting is to ensure they are well enough to return to work, determine the cause of their absence and whether there is anything you could do to reduce the chances of further absence, and inform them about any changes they need to be aware of. This should not be treated like an interrogation or disciplinary meeting.

By implementing clear absence and attendance policies, whereby sickness is monitored and addressed on each occasion, your employees will have a better understanding of what is expected. Let them know that they can come to you for help if they are facing any difficulties, and that they will not be unfairly penalised as a result of their honesty. By doing so, they are more likely to communicate effectively and raise issues before they become a problem.

About Rachel Craig

Rachel-CraigRachel Craig is the senior content writer and editor for Quality Formations Limited, the UK’s #1 company formation agency. An expert in her field, Rachel provides in-depth guidance and advice on UK company registration, corporate compliance and starting a new business.

Prior to joining Quality Formations, Rachel worked in research and customer service after obtaining a BA Marketing and an MA History of Art from the University of Glasgow. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, painting and spending time with her partner and their two untrainable dogs.