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Absence: Can Work Ever be Attractive?

How Attractive is Your Workplace?

High levels of absence in the workplace are a sign that something is wrong. Either there is a freakish statistical irregularity where multiple illnesses present themselves at the same time within a small population, or people are succumbing to an epidemic of a particular virus. But it’s possible also that something about the workplace is so deeply unattractive that people simply don’t want to go there.

Illness afflicts us all from time to time, and sometimes many people are afflicted by similar illnesses simultaneously. What interests me are the answers to these questions:

  1. What is it about the workplace that makes it so uninviting?

  2. How can we make the workplace and the work conducted within it more attractive?

  3. If we did make the workplace more attractive, would absence levels fall?

For some people work is a fatal attraction. They are irresistibly drawn to long hours and a misguided sense of loyalty and a protestant work ethic results in them turning up for work even when they’re on their knees. For others, anything and everything is more attractive than the possibility of attending work. And then there’s the people (possibly the majority) who want to go to work and take their responsibilities seriously but feel let down and unsupported by their employers. For this group, when opportunities present themselves and they have the choice of “should I go to work today or do something else?” they are more likely to favour the latter.

Punitive approaches to managing absence in the workplace are common. Withholding pay, reduced bonuses, disciplinary proceedings, etc. And well-meaning policies, designed to control absence levels often result in employees believing they have an additional annual holiday allowance providing they take them as ‘sick days’. Neither of these attempts to confront absence takes account of the employer’s responsibility to the employee. They don’t acknowledge the role that employers have to play in making sure their company is a place where people want to come to work and play.

Research from Universum about what people seek from employers and who they want to work for, makes for interesting reading. It’s interesting, too, that they use the word ‘attractive’, but the focus here is typically on image and brand.

I’d like to see a situation where before wielding the stick and the sword, (dismissing or penalising people for higher than normal levels of absence), companies and the managers within them take positive steps to attract people to work by making the experience a rewarding one.

This goes far beyond financial reward or penalties. And it’s not only about the physical environment. Neither is it about marketing or brand management. When employees realise that the reality does not match the spin, they are deeply aggrieved.

Attractive workplaces and companies have a  culture where people feel they are special; where they feel they are genuinely cared for and would be missed in their absence; where people are allowed to thrive and fulfil their potential in a place of safety which is free from bullying, discrimination and harassment; where the terms and conditions of employment reflect the employee’s personal circumstances and needs; where people receive encouragement and support from managers and colleagues; where there is an atmosphere of gratifying  industry; and where there is recognised value in what people do and the contribution they make. These companies work hard to develop and protect this culture.

If rated against these criteria, how many companies would genuinely pass this test, I wonder? It’s no coincidence that when these things are absent staff absence is high.

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