Illness not the biggest cause of employee absenteeism

More than half of all employees calling in sick for work say they are not actually suffering from an illness


More than half of all employees – 52% – calling in sick for work say they are not actually suffering from an illness, according to a Morneau Shepell survey.

There is a wide range of reasons, the study found. Family issues, workplace conflict, issues with managers and even taking time off to look for another job were cited as some of the drivers behind taking sick days.

All of these issues, said Paula Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell, can be boiled down to work-related stress.

“When you think about it, if things are going well at work, you are in a better place to deal with everything in your life, including family issues. If there is high work stress, it makes everything that you are dealing with a little more difficult.”

Employers aren’t exactly in the dark about the fact that illness isn’t the main cause of workers taking sick days. While most bosses said they consider unscheduled time off to be a serious or extremely serious issue in their companies, only one-third of all those surveyed said they believe illness is one of the top three reasons for employee absences.

That’s not to say that employees are simply playing hooky for the fun of it, as it could be argued that all types of stress can create physical responses that can feel like illness and make it difficult to focus on work.

According to Stanford School of Medicine’s Center on Stress and Health, stress can actually lead to illness, including cancer and heart disease.

“Acute stress can stimulate immune response, while chronic stress wears it down,” the center said in its mission statement.

“These factors can have an effect on the body’s ability to fight disease.”

Traditional employee absence management programs, the Morneau Shepell study found, aren’t that effective. Asking for a doctor’s note or issuing warning letters, for example, can lead to a slight dip in absenteeism initially, but this change will not be long-term, Allen said.

It’s not enough to address the symptoms; companies must address the root cause of absenteeism.

What companies can do, she said, is to look at certain underlying factors in the workplace and address them directly. For example, an unsupportive workplace culture and a perceived stigma around mental health issues were found to drive workers to take more days off.

“It’s not a matter of performance managing, because people will take time off if they feel they need to take time off work,” Allen said. “It’s on an individual level looking at those root causes.

“If there’s an opportunity to remind people of services like EAPs [employee assistance programs], to remind people of services that might be available to the employer to give them a confidential place to work out the reason is for their absence, including if it’s a chronic health issue, then you are actually solving it at another level.”

Full findings from the Morneau Shepell study are being presented April 1 at the Retail Council of Canada’s Human Resources Conference.