Is absenteeism a reflection of a lack of workplace inclusion?

Talent 30 June

Is absenteeism a reflection of a lack of workplace inclusion?

Sue Murray, head of human resources and absence management expert at business software specialist The Access Group, asks if we really know the real reasons behind staff absences.

The latest statistics from the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that 17.9 million working days are being lost each year due to stress, depression or anxiety, which represents a year-on-year increase of almost 40 per cent. Such a rise is inevitably concerning, but remember that the true reasons behind issues such as stress, while incredibly complex, can still be within our control as employers. 

Behind the terminology, it’s important to make time to dig deeper and find out what’s really going on in your workforce. Inclusivity is a common hidden issue that many companies overlook, as they believe they are already ticking all the right boxes when it comes to diversity. 

The starting point here has to be an understanding of the differences between diversity and inclusion. 

Broadly speaking, workplace diversity is about awareness of difference and being able to account for it. The end result is the creation of a more balanced workplace, which represents different groups in society. The moral and ethical implications of diversity speak for themselves; however, from a trading standpoint, a report by McKinsey found that diverse workplaces are more likely to have a stronger bottom line than industry competitors.  

It’s easy to see why diversity is a good thing, yet where it poses a problem for absenteeism is when it fails to turn diverse numbers into an inclusive reality. 

Inclusion needs to be about how we actively include our diverse workforce – if this doesn’t happen, we run the risk of unintentionally causing stress by alienating individuals. Research by Gartner points to the fact that highly inclusive organisations generate 2.3 times more cashflow per employee but, unlike diversity, inclusion is much more subjective and therefore difficult to measure. 

If we use women at board level as a tangible example, a board may be diversely representative in terms of the number of women present, but this may not be enough to mean genuine inclusion. For instance, those women may struggle with imposter syndrome, sexism, unconscious bias and childcare issues, which can all account for a greater sense of stress in the workplace. 

Of course, these experiences are not just limited to women, but I’m using this scenario purely to show that diverse representation does not automatically equate to inclusivity. Unless the aforementioned board is inclusive of women, it will fail to benefit from its diversity. In this instance, inclusivity would include flexible working, mentorship and dedicated training opportunities – all of which are within an employer’s control. 

There are multiple examples in every workplace, including: employees with disabilities who do not feel comfortable asking for accommodations; Muslim employees marking Ramadan who may need to adapt their working patterns; or parents who do not want to appear uncommitted by requesting time off to attend their child’s sports day or school play. All of these employees could be encountering a lack of inclusion, which results in them keeping their issues quiet. These can silently build as stressors in the workplace, leading to absenteeism, without the employer even being aware that there is an issue.    

The important thing to remember is that inclusivity does not just happen – there needs to be a proactive approach to it. Managers need to be guided on how to lead an inclusive culture, which then needs to be filtered down, supported by a focus on communication that fosters openness. 

It takes time to uncover the real reasons behind generic terms such as ‘workplace stress’, and the starting point needs to be looking at ways to free up team time to focus on it. For example, are there systematic repetitive tasks that are drains on your HR team? Can these be easily automated, allowing team members the extra resource to focus on inclusivity?

The reality is that many organisations are letting hidden reasons like inclusion lurk in their absence statistics and, as employers, we need to focus on uncovering what is really going on.