Are bonus days off a good way to cut absenteeism?

While positive reinforcement in the form of bonuses, pay raises and awards is a common human resource tool, does it work when it comes to addressing absenteeism?

While some companies have given performance awards to people who rarely called in sick, Julie Holden, a senior vice-president at SEB Benefits & HR Consulting, suggests it’s an outdated approach because it encourages people to show up even when they’re ill and “can spread that sickness to other people, which causes more absences.”

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In a recent situation involving Ontario Catholic school teachers, the union contract provided an incentive for reduced absenteeism by offering an extra day off to those with an absenteeism rate of at least one day less than the school board’s average.

The case sparked controversy when the Toronto Star revealed teachers working for the Toronto Catholic District School Board had taken an average of 16 sick and emergency days in 2014-15. That meant anyone who had taken 15 days off or less would qualify for the extra day off at reduced pay.

Why incentives don’t work

When it comes to absenteeism, incentives are just “a patch to the problem,” says Peter Hart, the chief executive officer of Rideau Recognition Inc., a Quebec-based organization that delivers employee rewards and recognition programs across Canada. According to Hart, rewards without recognition are inadequate. Recognition, he says, involves leaders engaging in simple gestures, such as saying thank you, that make employees feel valued or appreciated.

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“We don’t think incentives are effective in lowering absenteeism,” says Zahid Salman, an executive vice-president for the Ontario and Western Canada regions and general manager for absence management solutions at Morneau Shepell. He notes that while incentives may be helpful with employees who misuse banked sick days, they may discourage those who have chronic health concerns, such as mental-health issues, from seeking the help they need.

Salman says an emerging practice for employers is to move away from long-duration sick-leave plans in favour of short-term disability leaves. “If someone is off days in a row, you’d want to put them in a shortterm disability plan where you’re actively managing the claim,” says Salman.

Looking at the root cause

For employers, finding a solution starts with collecting and analyzing absence data, says Holden. “Are they strictly casual absences, emergency or personal days, or are there other types of absences included in those numbers? Are these days intermittent or are they several days in a row?”

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Instead of incentives, Holden suggests preventative measures to curb absenteeism. For instance, Toronto Catholic school teachers used to have an employee assistance program that the board discontinued at one point due to cutbacks. “That would be one thing I would reinstitute immediately,” says Holden. “That can be a great source of help for teachers. . . . Another one is a peer support program.”

Holden adds that providing incentives for employees to participate in wellness programs, such as health assessments and coaching, may be more successful. “The focus is more on keeping people healthy and productive at work . . . rather than incenting people with more time off.”

Read: How to use data to address workplace absence

Jann Lee is an associate editor at Benefits Canada:

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