• Opinion: What is the recipe for high absenteeism?

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  • 25 Oct 2016
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Dr Wen Wang examines the factors that contribute to different absenteeism rates in French, British and German businesses

In 2013 the European Commission repeated its survey of European companies, to compare different workplace practices across Europe. Data from 1,500 organisations in three of the 27 participating countries (France, Germany and the UK), produced striking revelations about companies’ reporting of workplace absenteeism.

The number of businesses in the UK that reported challenges of high levels of absenteeism fell from 21 per cent in 2004 to 7 per cent in 2011. A similar 12-point reduction was seen in French companies, but in Germany the same figure increased by 11 percentage points – completely bucking the apparent trend. What was the reason for this big disparity, and is Germany somehow predisposed to an absenteeism problem?

When jobs are secure, absenteeism grows

Workplace absenteeism is influenced by factors at national, organisational and individual levels. Nationally, one of the biggest factors affecting absenteeism is the state of the labour market: a strong labour market, where jobs are easy to come by, means that workers have a sense of job security and therefore can be more relaxed about taking time off work. In contrast, when new jobs are difficult to find and layoffs are expected – for example, during an economic downturn or a period of high unemployment – employees are far less likely to report themselves as absent.

The pattern of absenteeism above mirrors the relative rates of unemployment in the three countries at the time of the survey. At this point the average unemployment rate in Germany was enviably low, at around 5 per cent according to the latest OECD figures. In contrast, average unemployment rates in France and the UK reached 9.5 per cent and 8.4 per cent respectively because of the adverse effects of the recent recession, perhaps in part explaining the significant fall in absenteeism in these countries.

A flexible labour market may boost absenteeism

Another factor affecting absenteeism tendencies is the respective level of national employment protection. Of the three countries surveyed, current research points to the UK being the most liberal market economy, with low union density and the lowest levels of employment protection. In contrast, a highly unionised workforce with strong employment protection legislation, as is the case in Germany, makes it much harder for employers to sanction permanently contracted workers who are repeatedly absent, meaning employees are more relaxed about taking time off.

At the organisational level, absenteeism rates are also affected by the quality of the training available to workers. Poor training increases the frequency of injuries or accidents in the workplace, with the problem heightened in businesses with high numbers of temporary contracted workers who receive little investment in the form of training. Research indicates that workers on temporary contracts have an increased workplace accident probability of 5 per cent compared to permanent workers. It therefore follows that absenteeism would increase with the proportion of temporary staff in the workforce. With research also indicating that the share of temporary contracted workers rises where employment protection for permanent employees is high, it is hardly surprising that workplace absence should increase in Germany in particular.

The problems of an ageing workforce

At the level of the individual, it is older workers who most tend to associate with high absenteeism, not only because of personal health problems, but also reduced agility that can lead to workplace injury and subsequent absence from work. More than half of the German businesses that participated in the European Company Survey reported workforces where more than 20 per cent of staff were aged over 50, compared to 40 per cent in both France and the UK. The European Company Survey reveals a significant association between the proportion of older workers in the workforce and rates of absenteeism, and, in Germany – where the workforce is, on average, older than the UK – this is a problem that is only set to grow.

When national, organisational and individual factors that affect absenteeism come together in the right combination, companies will need to take action to manage the issue. Germany certainly has all of the ingredients, with its rapidly ageing workforce, high proportion of temporary workers in the economy, good levels of protection for employees and a relatively low unemployment rate. Meanwhile, the UK has the opposite elements but, should this change, absenteeism rates here could well rise again.

Dr Wen Wang is a senior lecturer in managerial economics at the University of Wolverhampton

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Comments (2)
  • Interesting snapshot. UK demographics show much higher self-employment leading to more satisfaction at work and lower absence. 33% of UK SME's also provide free fruit and health drinks, with some offering the latest botanical herbal drinks improving cognitive functions and weight management. Would be useful to explore these angles.

    Clive Bonny  

  • An interesting review. However from what I have seen a number of other variables can affect sickness absence. Geography for example, if organisations are in isolated locations this can affect all sorts of factors and make comparisons to national trends difficult. I also think the issue of poor training resulting in increased incidents and therefore increased absence is yes true but lots of other factors will affect incidents, Organisational issues, culture, moral, ergonomics of the activity and so on. So I think its quite a complex situation and very difficult to simplify. .