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Cutting Down on Worker Absenteeism

Support from a supervisor helps to counteract a call-in-sick culture.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: Aversive Workplace Conditions and Absenteeism: Taking Referent Group Norms and Supervisor Support into Account (Fee or subscription required)

Author: Michal Biron (University of Haifa and Tilburg University) and Peter Bamberger (Tel Aviv University and Cornell University)

Publisher: Journal of Applied Psychology

Date Published: March 2012 online; forthcoming in print

Supportive supervisors can reduce the number of times that employees who work in tough, intense, or dangerous job conditions call in sick, even when their co-workers think it’s acceptable to stay home frequently, according to this paper. And the boost in productivity from keeping employees on the job can have a measurable impact on the bottom line, the study shows.

Employee absenteeism costs an estimated US$225.8 billion a year in lost productivity in the United States, and much of it is tied to threatening or noxious workplace environments. Although on-the-job hazards are typically associated with traditional manufacturing sectors, dangers are widespread in a variety of industries. Employees in food and hospitality services, healthcare, transportation, and retail services, for example, face myriad risks from slippery floors; excessive noise; toxic chemicals; and routine activities that can cause burns, broken bones, or bruises.

But the impact of these conditions on absenteeism has remained unclear. The authors sought to explore the job-related factors that might mitigate the relationship between dangerous conditions and sick days, focusing in particular on workplace culture and the influence of supervisors.

The authors studied 508 workers at a public transportation agency in a large U.S. city. About 43 percent of the participants worked in the bus division, 48 percent at transit stations, and 9 percent in the subways. The agency closely tracks attendance and has a strict policy on absences.

The authors used the participants’ personnel files to calculate their absenteeism rate over a period of two years; on average, the employees missed about 10 days annually. To determine the perceived risks of the job, they randomly chose 34 of the participants to answer questionnaires about such workplace dangers as electrocution, hazardous chemicals or contaminants, incessant loud noise, extreme temperatures or humidity, and verbal or physical abuse by customers or co-workers. Participants were also asked about incidents in which they saw others sustain injuries or deal with harsh conditions.

In addition, the participants answered questions about their attitudes toward missing work and how they regarded their co-workers, as well as the degree to which they thought 20 possible reasons for not showing up were “justifiable.” Along with the employee’s own sickness, these reasons included a parent’s illness, a major event at a child’s school, or a problem at home.

The authors also gauged the supportiveness of supervisors. Using a five-point scale ranging from “never” to “several times a day,” the employees indicated how often during the past month their immediate boss had helped them in various ways, whether talking them through a work-related concern or providing positive feedback about their performance. In their analysis, the authors controlled for age, ethnicity, gender, tenure, and average hours worked per week, among other factors.

The results showed that an employee’s perception of on-the-job risks did not, in itself, play a role in how often a worker stayed home. Working alongside peers who thought it was OK to skip numerous days did, however, cause employees to call in sick more often — but only when the employees regarded their supervisor as unsupportive.

An employee culture that approves of missing work might result in higher employee absenteeism when coupled with aversive work conditions if a supervisor is considered unsupportive, but it seems to have no effect at all when employees feel their supervisor is supportive,” said co-author Peter Bamberger in a press release accompanying the study. “This may be because employees want to reciprocate positive treatment and avoid causing any problems due to their absenteeism that could negatively impact their supervisors.”

Conversely, the lack of support has an effect on the bottom line, the authors show. Not including medical benefits, employees at the transit agency earned an average of about $70 an hour and logged 77 sick hours in each of the two years studied. With 23,634 employees on the payroll, the agency lost about $127.4 million per year to sick leave. The authors calculated that unsupportive supervisors and a permissive culture accounted for about 3 percent of the absences, or almost $4 million annually.

It’s typically easier, cheaper, and faster, the authors note, for organizations to reform supervisors’ behaviors and strategies — by providing better training and resources, for example — than it is to transform an entire workplace’s cultural attitudes toward skipping work. The findings, said lead author Michal Biron, “provide useful guidance for companies and organizations that are dealing with a counterproductive employee subculture.”

Bottom Line:
Supportive supervisors are crucial to ensuring that employees who work in tough or dangerous conditions come to work more often. Working alongside colleagues who encourage calling in sick does influence employees to stay home, but only when they regard their supervisors as unsupportive.

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