Companies are social structures.
All jobs within those structures are interlinked and interdependent.
They are the spokes of a bicycle wheel – when one spoke is missing, it makes the journey more arduous, and even dangerous.
The impact of absenteeism – in all its manifestations – is significant on the bottom line of any business, and those who ignore it, do so at their own peril, says Martin Neethling, head of Sanlam Health.
The loss of productivity due to absenteeism, as well as its precursor, presenteeism, is costing companies billions annually.
There is no easy way to reduce it, he warns.
Authorised absenteeism is covered in our labour legislation in terms of annual leave, sick leave, paternity and maternity leave.
Unauthorised absence, on the other hand, may quickly lead to dismissal.
But what about deliberate absenteeism?
South Africa’s labour law recognises that employers can expect an employee to show up for the time they are being paid for, says Helen Wilsenach, partner in the employment and benefits practice at Bowmans.
“It recognises that time-related offences may, depending on the facts, give rise to a justification for disciplinary action.”
The ultimate sanction is, of course, dismissal.
But there are only a few reasons that are recognised as valid grounds for dismissal, including misconduct, and incapacity due to either ill-health or the inherit lack of ability or skill to do the job.
Anli Bezuidenhout, senior associate at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, says it is quite easy to pick up on a pattern – someone takes off one Monday a month, or comes in a bit later on a Friday, or sick leave follows a long weekend.
“With that pattern you can identify your risk and what to address,” she says.
The first step is to schedule a general discussion with the employee and to make them aware that you know about their absence from work.
Try to find out whether there is anything that you as the employer need to be aware of.
“This immediately places the onus on the employee to tell you if there is an illness or anything else you need to be aware of, and to bring that to your attention upfront,” states Bezuidenhout.
She says it is important to recognise that employees may have privacy reasons for not sharing information on illnesses with you.
“At least this discussion gives them the opportunity to say that they have been diagnosed or that they are battling with an illness, or the alternative is that they will realise that you are monitoring their absences which may increase their attendance.”
Another phenomenon that has been on the increase is presenteeism, where the person is at work, but not performing to expectations.
Jopie de Beer, CEO of the JvR Africa Group, which includes JvR Consulting Psychologists, says presenteeism is one of the most difficult tasks for human resource specialists to deal with.
There are several factors one must consider when presenteeism is observed.
“People are not motivated by money alone. It is about relationships, leadership, the position, career development opportunities and recognition,” says De Beer.
It might be that an employee was not appointed in the correct position, or that the person does not have the right qualifications or experience.
Another reason could be misplacement, where the person has the right qualifications but the position does not suit them; or the person could feel misled as they were appointed with several promises that remained just that.
Bezuidenhout says it is important to determine the reasons behind absenteeism or presenteeism.
The circumstances at home
When someone is not as engaged as they could be, it can be attributed to depression, chronic illness, exhaustion and even solicitude, says De Beer.
“People just have so much energy and if their personal circumstances are not good, then it is quite possible that they will appear absent because of limited reserves.”
Presenteeism can also be attributed to low blood sugar levels because the person left home in the early hours of the morning to be on time, and does not have time or money for breakfast.
“We also have to be alive to the fact that many people in SA come from a home where there has been no role model of what it is to work.”
This person feels lost, and not sure what to do next.
One has to take account of the physiological, psychological and logistical circumstances of the individual, De Beer remarks.
Some employees are able to do the job, but are just not doing it, says Bezuidenhout.
This translates to negligence or misconduct and needs to be addressed in terms of warnings and disciplinary steps.
Where an employee, despite their efforts, is unable to do the job because of, for example, anxiety or depression or any other medical reason, the onus is on the employer to accommodate the employee and to assist them to reach their productive level again.
“If that is not possible, it can also get to a point where the person’s employment is terminated for incapacity – either because of health reasons or for an inability to do the job,” says Bezuidenhout.
Presenteeism can also be linked to toxic environments, where leaders are egocentric, unethical and unreliable.
When leaders are perceived as incompetent, or employees start feeling that there is no end to working hours or that their work is never “good enough”, presenteeism will manifest itself, says De Beer.
“Before you come to the conclusion that someone is deliberately manipulating the rules and regulations of the company for his one selfish advantage, you have to find the reason behind the conduct,” she says.
Managers need to keep impeccable records to expose deliberate absenteeism.
“You have to be procedurally and substantially fair if the route is eventually toward the termination of employment,” says Lionel van Schalkwyk, chairperson of the South African Reward Association.
There has to be an initial consultation and a joint agreement on how to resolve the issue.
It must be clear and everybody must understand what the expected outcomes should be.
When rules are not consistently applied, a culture of absenteeism is quickly created.
If there are inconsistencies, the reason for it should be clearly documented.
Ultimately, says Van Schalkwyk, the aim should be to have motivated and engaged employees who contribute to the organisation.
When managing absenteeism, managers should also keep in mind the work/life balance of employees, and that employees will most likely from time to time have personal obligations that they need to attend to.
This article originally appeared in the 9 May edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.