Tips for handling difficult conversations about absenteeism

When left unchecked, absenteeism is like a termite that stealthily eats into employee engagement, team morale and organizational output, often costing companies millions of dollars in lost productivity, wages and management time.

The trick is to proactively address the issue before it becomes stickier than it needs to be. Quite often, a straightforward conversation between a manager and an employee is the obvious solution, but according to Paula Allen, vice-president of research, analytics and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell Ltd., it often doesn’t happen. “Management avoids communication till it gets to a difficult point.”

Read: Canadian employers expect rise in medical leaves due to mental health: survey

Chris MacDonald, Manulife Financial Corp.’s assistant vice-president of wellness, absence and disability solutions, believes proactive managers can help reduce the impact and costs of absenteeism by identifying and understanding telltale signs that someone is struggling. The signs, MacDonald points out, go beyond sick days. Something could be brewing if an otherwise conscientious employee starts showing up late to meetings or cancelling them frequently. It’s worth reaching out, she says, if someone’s performance starts dipping or an employee stops taking initiative or becomes overly defensive.

Based on their experiences, both Allen and MacDonald suggest a step-by-step protocol covering the periods before, during and after the conversation:

FOR 2018

Last fall, Morneau Shepell released a report on human resources trends for 2018. On the subject of absenteeism, it found:

of employers identified reducing absenteeism as an objective for this year

are considering manager training to improve their disability management outcomes

are looking at a change to their policies or processes to improve disability management

of human resources leaders cited complex mental-health claims as their top challenge in managing absence and disability costs

Before the conversation:

1. Managers need to understand it’s their job — not the human resources department’s — to have the conversation, says Allen. “Teach them to have critical conversations with empathy, objectivity and a problem-solving focus, especially around mental-health issues.”

2. Pick the right time and place. Avoid accosting someone on a Friday afternoon, for example, or calling an employee out during a team meeting. Confidentiality is critical to such conversations, says MacDonald. “Bring it up toward the end of a scheduled one-on-one meeting with the employee.”

3. Prepare for the meeting by gathering the facts: dates of absences, missed deadlines, the reasons given and any supporting documentation or notes. Sometimes, absenteeism happens without people even being conscious of it, says Allen.

During the conversation:

1. Objectivity is key. “Don’t make assumptions,” says Allen. “Unless you know, you don’t know.” Managers should lay out things as honestly and clearly as they can. If an employee’s absence is affecting work, acknowledge it.

2. Start with open-ended questions by, for example, asking how the employee is doing, says MacDonald.

Read: How to address workplace absenteeism

3. Keep the language neutral and empathetic. Be sure to express that the person is a valuable part of the team whose well-being is important.

4. Remember that the goal is to find a resolution. Ask, in a respectful manner, “Is there anything I can do to enable you to attend work on a more regular basis?”

5. Avoid being threatening or confrontational.

6. If it’s a personal issue, managers can act as a navigator, MacDonald suggests, by offering access to workplace supports such as the employee assistance program.

7. At the end of the conversation, ask if it’s OK to follow up in a week.

After the conversation:

1. Stay involved. Companies that foster a culture of wellness are ones where managers stay connected with their employees, even when they’re away, says MacDonald.

2. If an employee is coming back after a prolonged absence, prepare for the return by assigning someone on the team to act as a buddy. Make sure the employee has access to the office, a workspace and systems.

Read: The case for medium-term disability management

3. Check in regularly to monitor progress. And when managers see employees making an effort, they should let them know they appreciate it.

4. If there isn’t much progress and the matter is escalating towards termination, it may be a good idea to engage a third party. “An employee might struggle to chat with a manager but find it easier to open up to a third party,” says Allen.

5. Be sure to document the conversation, followup discussions, progress and continuing absenteeism. If disciplinary action becomes necessary, the manager will have a firmer base to stand on.

Kanupriya Vashisht is a freelance writer based in Milton, Ont.