Employee engagement Culture

How to Reduce Absence through Engagement

by Nicholas Edwards on January 21, 2019

Take the number of people you employ and multiply it by £522 – that’s how much sickness absence costs your company annually, according to the CIPD’s latest Absence Management report. And while there’s little anyone can do about unavoidable illness, a surprisingly large proportion of absences could be avoided by engaging employees in their work.

Absence, engagement and wellbeing

In many cases, people simply don’t enjoy coming to work. This could be for any number of reasons, such as unreasonable workloads, bad managers, or a lack of meaning and direction in their work. As a result, some employees feel so stressed, exhausted, or demoralised that calling in sick seems the only solution.

While it’s tempting to blame such an attitude on the individual, this reflects a catastrophic failure on the part of employers to engage their staff. Despite the overwhelming benefits that come with an engaged workforce, most employers are still falling way short – a recent Gallup survey found that 87% of employees worldwide are not engaged in their work. This is nothing short of a disengagement epidemic, the impact of which cannot be underestimated.

According to Gallup, engaged employees take on average 2.7 sick days per year, while disengaged employees take 6.2. That’s 3.5 days lost per employee per year as a direct result of disengagement. If your company has 500 disengaged employees, you’re losing 1750 days of work per year – that’s well over 4.5 years in total!

Employee engagement underpins every other people-related issue that your business faces: recruitment, retention, productivity, absence, and so on. Fix the employee engagement issue and the rest should fall into place.

On top of this, stress-related absence is on the rise. According to the CIPD report mentioned previously, stress is one of the top five causes of short-term (55%) and long-term (63%) absence, with workload remaining by far the most common cause. Other mental health-related issues, such as anxiety and depression, remain a taboo subject in the workplace, causing those suffering to lie about the causes of their absence for fear of negative repercussions. While some people have underlying mental health conditions, others are aggravated or even caused by conditions in the workplace.

Why are we getting engagement so wrong?

Employee engagement could be described as the extent to which employees are absorbed in their work, and committed to the goals and vision of the company. The fact that many people are disengaged shows that most employers are failing to provide the conditions for engagement to flourish. Why is this?

To put it simply: work has failed to adapt in line with changing attitudes and expectations. Despite the glaring need for a new approach to work, changes have been mostly superficial rather than wholesale. Really, the fundamentals of work have hardly changed at all.

Most employees have little say over the basic conditions of their work, resulting in a one-size-fits-all approach that has little regard for their individual needs and preferences. Most businesses operate in a top-down hierarchy, and those towards the bottom have little say in the direction of their work, and often no real understanding of the bigger picture. Outdated approaches towards people management and feedback continue to alienate and demoralise even the most enthusiastic employees. No wonder so many people are disengaged.

How to get engagement right

Rather than cosmetic changes to an outdated system, what’s required is a complete change in ethos, moving towards a more human-centric approach to work where the needs of individual employees are heard, understood, and met. Consider the following questions:

  • Do your employees have a say in shaping the conditions of their work?
  • Do they understand the company’s vision and goals, and how their work relates to them?
  • Do you provide regular, ongoing feedback on your employees’ goals and progress?
  • Do you invest in your employees through training and development?
  • Do your employees feel as though they have a future with you?
  • Do you treat your employees like adults in an equal partnership?
  • Are your people managers adept at the human side of management?
  • Are you using technology in a way that enables productivity and communication?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to these, you are on the right track.

Ideally, none of these points should be seen in isolation. They all add up to a complete cultural change in the way businesses should approach engagement. This new approach to work recognises that you can’t motivate employees purely through a salary, or the threat of losing it. Instead, true motivation comes through a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s work, and the ability to act with autonomy and take ownership.

Your goal as an employer is to create an environment and culture where your employees want to come to work, rather than looking for excuses not to. Do this, and you’ll not only have a happier, healthier workforce, you’ll also find absence rates dropping and productivity soaring.


Nicholas Edwards

Nicholas Edwards -

Nicholas Edwards is a freelance writer and editor based in Prague, the Czech Republic. When he's not helping local businesses master the English language, he loves writing about the future of work for People First. 

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