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How HR can address increasing staff absences

By Jack Campbell | |6 minute read

Business leaders are being urged to take a look at their approach to absence management, with data showing Australians are taking more time off than in years past.

Employees take time off for a variety of reasons. When they’re off on holiday or feeling under the weather, these are normal and to be expected from staff.

However, when workers are taking time off due to poor mental health, burnout, or issues with colleagues, these are issues that should and can be avoided through proper absence management.


Absence management, as described by Gartner, is an employer’s approach — via policies, procedures or programs — to reduce employee absenteeism, avoid workforce disruption and maximise employee productivity.

Absence isn’t restricted to days off, either. Presenteeism and turnover are further issues that can arise and need to be dealt with in order to maintain a healthy workplace.

“Absence [management] is really quite a broad area, and I think we’ve fallen into the trap historically of thinking about absence as sick leave from an organisational perspective, but people can be absent in many ways even whilst physically at work, so we’re really starting to expand that understanding through thinking about presenteeism,” said Morag Fitzsimons, national manager for employee care and people solutions at Lockton.

“SafeWork in 2016 did an assessment where sick leave alone, they estimated, would cost Australian businesses $6 billion by 2030. But when you add in a layer of people managing depression but add presenteeism and additional absence to those sorts of things, it could be an additional $6.3 billion.”

These issues can be prevented in the workplace. Maintaining a happy workforce is key to productivity.

“They might be at work but they’re struggling with other things in their lives, or they’re unhappy at work, and that has a direct impact on workforce participation, and that has an impact on profitability. So, organisations are starting to understand that there’s both a commercial, as well as an ethical and moral, benefit of actually treating your people well,” said Ms Fitzsimons.

With persisting talent shortages, retention should be of utmost concern: “We don’t have the luxury anymore of having a train of people coming through to replace those that leave.”

According to Ms Fitzsimons, Australia has some of the best absence provisions in the world. This is great for supporting workers who need it; however, we are also seeing an increase in time taken off, highlighting underlying issues.

“Direct Health did a 2019 absence management survey, and we found that the average sick leave for Australians has moved from nine days per Australian to 11.2 days per Australian. And when you think our statutory entitlements are 10 days, the average Australian is using every day of that plus a little bit more,” she said.

Helping to turn absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover rates in an organisation is not a one-size-fits-all approach, said Ms Fitzsimons. You need to understand what factors relate to your company and act accordingly.

“It’s really about understanding what is driving absence in your business; it’s understanding the demographics of your workforce. Do you have a predominantly ageing workforce, as many employers in Australia now do? Do you have a young workforce? What do they need from a life stage perspective?” Ms Fitzsimons said.

“The needs of a 25-year-old is very different from a 55-year-old. But just because someone’s 55 or getting close to 60 doesn’t mean they’re planning to stop work.

“We’ve really got to take a deep dive into the data that all business has around sick leave, around turnover, around looking at where it’s happening, not who’s taking the leap, but where it’s happening and seeing the trends.

“Are we seeing patterns? Is poor wellbeing being driven by poor culture? Is it being driven by age and shift patterns? What did we think is driving it?”

The transcript of this podcast episode, when quoted above, was slightly edited for publishing purposes. The full audio conversation with Morag Fitzsimons on 6 April is below, and the original podcast article can be found here.



Absence management

Absence management is a strategy used by employers to minimise employee absenteeism, prevent worker disturbance, and increase employee productivity. It entails establishing a balance between providing assistance to workers absent from their jobs due to illness, accidents, or other unanticipated events and penalizing those whose absences are dubious or excessive.

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.