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Understanding employee attendance

Attendance at work has been a focus of research interest for almost a century. Employee absence was considered to be a form of withdrawal behaviour—where employees chose to withdraw their labour from the workplace either permanently or temporarily. It was thought to be related to employee turnover and that the two were able to be treated in the same way. Subsequent research, however, has shown that employee absence and turnover are different, as are the consequences of each. In particular, absence is now considered to be more spontaneous than turnover and more likely to occur as a replacement for turnover when turnover is not a viable option; for example, when prevailing economic conditions lead to a tight labour market.2

Absence behaviour has been shown to be influenced by a broad range of factors related to both the workplace (for example, the characteristics of the job and quality of leadership in the workplace) and the employee (for example, the values and expectations of the employee and external factors such as their domestic or financial situation). From a practical perspective, an employee's attendance at work can be shown to be a function of their ability to attend work, their motivation to attend work and the attendance culture in the workplace.

Ability to attend

A range of factors external to the employee affects their ability to attend work. The two most important are health and carer responsibilities. The decision to be absent from the workplace to expedite recovery from an illness or injury, or manage an ongoing disability, or to meet caring responsibilities (for children, partners or, increasingly, parents) requires a complex decision on the part of the employee. This decision-making process takes into account the employee's personal health and consequent ability to contribute productively to the workplace, the disruption potentially caused by attending work when ill, the need of family for support, responsibilities to the workplace (including work colleagues), and personal accountability for work deliverables.

Typically, the effect of these factors on employee attendance will be largely unanticipated and provision is made for this in modern workplaces through workplace agreements. Most of these allow for some leave to be taken without the requirement to produce evidence and a persistent concern for employers is the ‘… perceived tendency for workers to take ‘non-genuine’ absences.’3 Given this concern, it could be argued that the real focus on absence in the workplace (and the APS in particular) is this ‘abuse’ of leave entitlements and not the ‘… large proportion of … honourable men and women…’4 who are absent from work because they are genuinely unable to attend. The concern is rightly with those who take advantage of workplace entitlements as a result of motivation (or lack of it) to work.

Motivation to attend

Employee motivation to work has been the subject of an enormous amount of interest in both the academic and practitioner literature since the work of Elton Mayo in the 1920s. There are multiple theories of work motivation (expectancy theory, goal-setting theory, self-regulation theory, work design theory5), but perhaps one of the most powerful concepts in understanding employee behaviour in the workplace is employee engagement.

Employee engagement refers to the reciprocal relationship where employees not only gain from participating in work, they actively contribute to the workplace emotionally, cognitively and physically; the latter logically extending to their attendance at work. While an employee's attendance at work is fundamentally driven by their ability to attend work, engagement with work has a critical impact—an employee's level of engagement with work moderates decisions about whether to attend work if they are unwell or have family or caring commitments.

In the APS, employee engagement is assessed using the APS Employee Engagement Model. This model considers employee engagement in terms of employees' propensity to engage with four components—the job they do, the team they work with, their supervisor and their agency. Previously, employee engagement in the APS has been shown to be relevant to a range of measures relating to workforce productivity, including intention to leave, sick-leave use and individual performance.6

Attendance culture

An attendance culture establishes acceptable levels of absence and grounds for absence within a workplace or work group. There is strong evidence showing that workplace culture has an impact on employee absence7 and that a culture that promotes and supports attendance can contribute to limiting the impact of sickness and other absence on organisational productivity.8 While developing an attendance culture is a complex undertaking, it can yield very positive results. For example, in taking this approach, a public sector agency in the United Kingdom reduced its sickness absence rate by almost 50% over a period of six years; resulting in enhanced productivity through having up to 200 more employees at work each day.9

The Australian Public Service Commission (the Commission) provides guidance on creating an attendance culture that refers to issues that influence employee attendance at an agency, work group and individual level. This includes guidance on leadership, management and people management practices, team size and structure, and work-life balance.10

An attendance culture establishes a group norm that specifies and moderates the socially acceptable levels and conditions for absence from the workplace. It should be noted that an attendance culture can also operate to establish good attendance as a norm irrespective of work conditions (the ‘hero’ syndrome) or by establishing a group norm that supports absence as a valid response to dissatisfaction with the workplace.11

Attendance cultures derive from two sources: the culture around work attendance in society at large and the attendance culture norms within the organisation, workgroup or subculture. The two are related, with the former providing a baseline for the latter.

The Australian Taxation Office: Managing attendance

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) Human Resources (HR) services has partnered with a number of business areas to identify leave drivers by analysing demographic information, local business intelligence and APS Employee Census (employee census) results.

For example, analysis of one business area's absence data identified that:

  • APS 3 employees took, on average, double the amount of unscheduled absence days than any other APS classification
  • employees aged between 25 and 29 years took double the amount of unscheduled absence days compared to employees of other ages
  • 90% of employees in the business area had been in the ATO for less than 15 years
  • in some months almost as much personal leave without pay (primarily unpaid sick leave) was taken as paid sick leave with employees having exhausted their personal leave credits
  • three teams were identified as having workplace absence rates above both the business area and ATO average.

Additional analysis highlighted patterns of leave behaviour, for example, employees taking one to two days every month, indicating possible health or motivational drivers.

This analysis combined with local business intelligence and employee census results allowed HR and the business area's leadership to develop a tailored attendance strategy. For example, a review of scheduling processes was conducted to allow for more flexibility for employees while still meeting required deliverables. Increasing scheduling flexibility in the business area has been a significant contributor to employees achieving improved attendance.

Examples of other initiatives recommended by this partnership included:

  • intervention for compensation cases and/or complex health cases with support from corporate teams
  • director-level involvement in complex health cases
  • support for and development of manager capability through a manager capability review and identification of appropriate learning solutions
  • targeted conversations between managers and employees with high levels of unscheduled absence to identify specific issues, implement appropriate support plans and provide early intervention.

Additionally, the business area implemented a supportive attendance portfolio holder whose role was to provide ongoing support to managers in managing attendance by:

  • providing support to managers to conduct return-to-work conversations
  • identifying and facilitating appropriate support
  • working with stakeholders in the site to gather, analyse and report on local data
  • working with the business area to continuously improve workplace attendance strategies and initiatives.

Since the implementation of these initiatives, the business area has decreased unscheduled absence rates by more than two days per full-time equivalent (FTE) employee.


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Footnotes

2 Porter, LW & Steers, RM 1973, ‘Organizational, work, and personal factors in employee turnover and absenteeism’, Psychological Bulletin, vol. 80, no. 2, pp. 151–176.

3 Taylor, P, Cunningham, I, Newsome, K & Scholariosu, D 2010, ‘Too scared to go sick—reformulating the research agenda on sickness absence', Industrial Relations Journal, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 270–288.

4 McLachlan, DC 1920, Royal Commission on Public Service Administration, report, vol. IV, Commonwealth of Australia, Government Printer, Melbourne, pp. 1525–1620.

5 Muchinsky, PM 2012, Psychology applied to work: an introduction to industrial and organizational psychology (10th edn), Hypergraphic Press, Summerfield, North Carolina.

6 Australian Public Service Commission 2011, State of the Service Report 2010–11, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

7 The Australasian Faculty of Occupational Medicine 1999, Workplace attendance and absenteeism, Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Sydney.

8 Robson, F 2007, ‘How to … develop an attendance culture’, weblog post, 31 May, People Management, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, viewed 25 September 2014, http://www.cipd.co.uk/pm/peoplemanagement/b/weblog/archive/2013/01/29/howtodevelopanattendanceculture-2007-05.aspx.

9 Black, D-C & Frost, D 2011, Health at work—an independent review of sickness absence, TSO (The Stationery Office), Norwich, United Kingdom, p. 59.

10 Australian Public Service Commission 2013, Promoting an attendance culture, Australian Public Service Commission, Canberra, p. 11, viewed 25 September 2014, http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications-and-media/current-publications/promoting-attendance-culture.

11 Nicholson, N & Johns, G 1985, ‘The Absence Culture and the Psychological Contract—Who's in Control of Absence?’, Academy of Management Review, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 397–407.