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Opinion

October 14, 2017

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The working blues

Excessive absenteeism among the employees is rampant in industrial and commercial undertakings within the country – both in the private and public sectors. The most common reason given by employees for staying away from work is sickness.

Since absenteeism is a problem faced by employers all over the world, we can adopt techniques used in developed countries to counter this form of behaviour. The cost of absenteeism to employers is particularly high. In addition to the direct costs, there are also hidden costs that are linked to absenteeism. These include overtime to cover for sick employees, the cost of engaging temporary help to replace absentees, the supervisory time spent to find a person to cover, the impact of a decreased morale or the lowered productivity of those who have to work harder in place of someone who is chronically absent and the catch-up time required by the returning absentees.

The rate of real and fake sickness absenteeism in Pakistan may be much higher than in developed countries. As per the statutory annual leaves in a year, there are 16 days set aside for sick leaves, 10 days are allotted for casual leaves and 14 days are accounted for as annual leaves. However, due to the periodical negotiated settlements with the unions, the yearly quantum of sick leaves in most organisations is 30 days and ranges from between 20 and 25 days in the case of annual leaves. In addition, employees get around 15 days worth of public holidays and 104 days of weekly rest days.

The leave/holidays entitlement and rest days mentioned above amount to 179 days, which leaves 186 days (51 percent) for work. Employees who are prone to absenteeism tend to avail more leaves, which may be without salary, or remain absent without leave after exhausting their paid leave entitlement under the organisation’s rules. In a majority of cases, ‘sickness’ is cited as a reason by most employees to avail the additional leave. It becomes difficult for organisations to manage such situations and employees indulging in this form of behaviour are despised by their employers. Absenteeism tends to demoralise conscientious employees when their colleagues demonstrate an irresponsible attitude towards the job.

Disciplinary cases triggered by absenteeism are particularly high in organisations as compared to any other type of misconduct committed by employees. Under the law, there are three types of absenteeism constituting misconduct based on which action may be taken against a delinquent employee if he is found guilty of an offence in a domestic enquiry held for this purpose. These comprise absences without leave for more than 10 days, habitual absences without leave and habitual tardiness to work.

In order to check the alarming cost of absenteeism, companies have been exploring methods to control fake sickness absenteeism. As people do get sick, it is unrealistic to set a goal of zero-absenteeism. The true objective is to establish programmes that penalise those who abuse sick leave privileges. It is also desirable to reward employees who have a consistently good attendance record.

Besides sickness – fake or genuine – employees stay away from work owing to social, cultural and behavioural reasons. Many employees remain absent because the work is dull, unrewarding, possibly hazardous, stressful, carries a low status and is physically demanding. Employees may have insurmountable family problems that receive greater priority than the job. Insignificant symptoms may reach such proportions that reporting to work on a daily basis appears to be inconceivable or the supervisor-worker relationship may be such that staying away becomes the only means of coping.

In developed countries, the occupational health staff in organisations helps their managements evaluate the reasons for repetitive absences that are purportedly taken due to illness. They delineate the social, domestic and emotional factors in an employee’s life. If as a result of this exercise some job-related aetiological elements are uncovered that the management could reverse, counselling sessions are held with the relevant employee, which could help alleviate the attendance problem.

In Pakistan, a majority of employers either do not believe in tackling the issue through this approach or consider it worthless to devote so much time and energy towards improving an employee’s attendance. Instead of correcting the situation, they prefer to take disciplinary action against the employees, which backfires in most cases. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the issue of chronic absenteeism places an organisation at a competitive disadvantage in terms of direct and indirect costs.

Whatever the psyche and prevalent trends among the employees may be, we can use the following methods to manage the problem of absenteeism effectively: investigate the causes of absence from work and then eliminate them where it’s possible; introduce incentive schemes for employees with good attendance records and link perks, such as conveyance allowance, with the employee’s attendance.

The writer is an industrial relations professional.

Email: [email protected]

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