How culture influences absenteeism

Absenteeism does no one any good, and recent figures have suggested it can cost as much as 4% of GDP.  This is a considerable factor in the growing investment in health and wellbeing projects in a bid to keep employees fit and healthy.

Whilst the average employee takes between 7-10 days off per year for legitimate medical reasons, there are also a number of ‘slack days’ on top of that.  These may be due to a number of factors, including stress or tiredness, but also tacking on extra days to holidays or legitimate sickness absences.

A recent study finds that the number of these ‘slack days’ is largely a consequence of the culture in the firm.  Across some 2 million Danish employees, the researchers were able to monitor workers who moved between employers to see if the number of sick days they requested changed as they moved.

Cultural impact

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there appeared to be a strong cultural impact on absence levels.  For instance, if we move to a firm with lower absenteeism levels than our previous employer, we tend to have 4.5 days less off on average than before.  In other words, we seem to take our cue from our peers in our new company.  Indeed, the researchers associate some 60% of the variation in absence levels to the culture of the organization.

So what exactly is it about culture that is so important?  The researchers began to break the results down for specific firms and found some interesting things.  For instance, family firms typically have lower absenteeism rates.  The authors suggest this is largely because of differences in incentives and environment.

These inspire greater levels of loyalty among employees, whilst the longer-term horizon of family run firms tends to ensure greater job stability for the workforce.  What’s more, reducing ones absenteeism has a clear impact on your salary, with workers who are absent less doing better in terms of wages.

It was also apparent that absenteeism rose consistently the further down the organization you went.  Managers and team leaders would be less likely to be absent than middle-managers, who would in turn be less likely to be absent than entry level employees.  Likewise, workers higher up the hierarchy would also return to work faster after illness than their peers lower down the food chain.

No silver bullet

Of course, culture isn’t the only thing that influences absenteeism levels.  For instance, a study from a few years ago found that flexible working had a significant impact.

It’s also important not to fall into the trap that presenteeism is a better alternative.  Indeed, the costs associated with turning up to work when unwell are considerably higher than those associated with absenteeism.  Sick employees employees spread their illnesses to others, which leads to more absences.

So that’s not a good thing, but the study does provide some clear indications that if your managers, and subsequently your employees, are invested in their work and their workplace, then they’re much less likely to skive off.


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