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part II: resolving the problem

By Shari Barnes

There are a variety of underlying problems that may cause absenteeism. Communication is the key. Ask your employees to tell YOU if they have any problems that may be affecting their attendance. Then help them solve their problems, and be sure to follow up. Reaching out to employees can be great for morale and retention.
  • Try to change the nature of the work when possible-cross train (this will also help scheduling when employees are absent).
  • Arrange forflextime and car-pooling.
  • Offer shorter lunch periods and allow employees to leave early or arrive late to take care of day care issues.
  • Talk to them or help them get counseling for personal problems that are affecting their work.
  • We have suggested talking to your employees as a way to ferret out any issues that should be addressed. However, before you counsel, it is important you document the abuse and have a written policy in place. Employees who are terminated for excessive absenteeism will sue, claiming discrimination over those employees - possibly the ones who are more vital to your business success - who were absent just as often. If you don't have the right company policy on unexcused absences, you are asking for trouble. The right policy needs to spell out what is and isn't acceptable by law, thereby protecting you against charges of discrimination or federal law violations.

    So you have addressed all of the above, and you still have half of your staff out as you read this. It's important to remember there are certain times of the year when even companies who bend over backwards to do everything right still find that certain employees abuse the system. Now what do you do? You may feel like your only recourse is termination. But before you make your decision, do your research. Look at the bigger picture… it cyclical, only on certain days, during certain times of the year?

    This time of the year is usually more problematic for everyone. The holidays pose particular challenges for employers and employees alike. While much has been written about how joyous the holidays are supposed to be, little has been written about the stress and depression that is also common this time of year. Media depictions of the holidays as one big group hug with egg-nog toasts, only serve to accentuate any disconnect people may feel between their desire to beat someone with a fruit cake and the red and green joy they are supposed to feel.

    Of course, not everyone feels lonely or depressed during the holidays If you don't, you're not in denial. But the holiday blues is common enough to warrant attention in the workplace.

    Why are we so thrown off this time of year? To many of us the workplace is home. It's where we go to socialize, attach to other people, and therefore; where we garner much our self-esteem. For many of us, our co-workers are our only social circle. Our self-concept and sense of connectedness is often tied to the position we hold within an organization. The holidays are hard because they are a disruption in our emotional work-day routine, which can be overly stressful for some of us. And there are other pressures that are placed on us during the holidays. It's tough to appear comfortable, warm and gregarious at holiday gatherings, while maintaining a certain level of professionalism and appropriateness, especially for those who are shy. The socially inept and those who don't know the rules fear the loss of their job, or at least those future promotions.

    And lets look across our glass of egg-nog at those who work with the frazzled, depressed, or the socially inept. It's also stressful for those who have to deal with those who are especially hard hit around the holidays. For these folks, the additional stress doesn't end until well into January after the impact of New Years Eve has subsided.

    Now that we have a better understanding of how our employees and co-workers might be feeling, lets talk about actions. What behaviors can we expect? We all know that stress and depression can lead to emotional outbursts and decreased morale. Sometimes when tempers get short these emotions get displaced onto co-workers or worse onto customers. At the same time, some just leave the scene and absenteeism climbs. In addition, job quality and productivity can suffer until workers can pull themselves back together. Troubled workers are not easy to spot. Most employees never show their distress, while those that do, never think they are. But smart managers and HR personnel can make a big impression on their workers and teams by simply being pro-active and sensitive to the hidden emotions the holidays may bring out. Were' not suggesting mini-support groups, just some simple steps employers can take to let their staff know they understand how stressful the holidays can be, and help themselves in the process.

    1. Posting newspaper clippings or advice columns along with supportive, non-judgmental comments can go a long way in tempering the "Is it only me" worries. For example, a note that reads, "I guess the holidays are different for everyone," or "This makes the holidays around my house sound like a 50's sit-com", will let your employees know they are not alone.
    2. Review the work-load in each department. Are you asking too much of your employees at this time of year? Many employers ask people to give 110%, which might not be possible with the added pressures of family and social demands. The whole idea is to create a culture that supports work-life balance, not an overemphasis on face time.
    3. Send out a "holiday tips" list. (For example)
  • Don't overbook yourself with holiday parties, open houses, musicals/plays, etc. Doing too much can lead to exhaustion and something is bound to suffer-often it is your work.
  • Understand that family get-together's can be stressful. Not all of our relatives are pleasant (read Uncle Harry who drinks too much and then repeats the same embarrassing story about the time you returned from your first date with toilet paper stuck to your shoe).
  • Financial education for employees, don't overspend-excessive debt can cause stress.
  • Start shopping early. Shop online and have packages mailed to your office, or directly to the recipient!
  • Set aside some downtime during the month-time where you're not shopping or planning.
  • Avoid setting difficult personal goals, or taking added responsibility at home.
  • Don't expect too much from yourself because this can increase feelings of inadequacy-(you're not Martha Stewart). Martha has a staff of 25 that help to make her house and meals look like perfect.
  • Be sure to get some moderate exercise.

  • Recognizing and addressing the variety of emotions people experience during and after the holidays can create a corporate culture of understanding and acceptance among workers and management. And in the tight job market, not only is such behavior pro-worker and pro-family, it's good business.

    So, here we are. You do all of the above: you understand, empathize, counsel, publish tips and suggestions to help your employees deal with the stress and depression associated with this time of year, you clarify policy, make them feel important to the organization, you are the perfect employer…and they still fail to meet all your attendance requirements. Now, you need to think before you react.

    When a business in Omaha, Nebraska, fired an employee recently for excessive absenteeism, her managers figured they had done the right thing. After all, she had missed six days of work in the past three months, failed to communicate the reasons for her absences to her supervisor, and their back-up documentation was airtight. To make things worse, her attitude was frustratingly cavalier regarding the added pressure she was placing on her boss, her co-workers, and the company. Her supervisor had no other choice but to terminate, and the basis for the action was certainly reasonable wasn't it?

    Not so fast! The woman sued her ex-employer for wrongful discharge - and she won. The jury decided the employer had not adequately informed the employee of her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which applies to companies with 50 or more employees. They had not told her that she had a right to take time off to care for her schizophrenic son. Result: The employer had to pay a large sum of award money to the terminated worker.

    Know your employees better. Know who is most likely to respond to stress at different levels. Armed with the knowledge of what behavior is likely, you will have far better advance notice of what tendencies you can expect - and be far better prepared to pre-empt potentially negative situations, before they occur.

    Use MD/100 to know who may be late back, before people leave for their holidays, so you can relax and look forward to a profitable New Year!

    Click here to review part 1 of this article.

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    Sharon (Shari) Eurich Barnes is Director of Employee Relations for Texas Christian University. Complementing her human resource career, Ms. Barnes writes for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Working Mother, Women as Managers and Management Review. She also conducts private and court-ordered mediations.

    In addition to hosting Books in Review on cable television, Ms. Barnes speaks on employment issues for professional associations and conferences.

    Ms. Barnes received her Bachelor's degree from California Baptist University and Master's degree from Texas Christian University. Among other affiliations, she is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, American Society for Training and Development, American Association of University Women, Fort Worth Human Resource Association Board of Directors (past), College and University Personnel Association, Fort Worth Mayor's Committee for Disabled Persons, and Tarrant County Association of Mediators Board of Directors. Ms. Barnes has also been named to Who's Who Among American Women.

    Comments and questions about this article: Shari Barnes.

    The opinions expressed in articles by this author do not necessarily represent the opinions of MindData. These articles are provided as a means of informing you of current events and opinions that impact employers and the workplace.

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