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Is your approach to managing absence causing burnout?

1 June 2023 9 min read

managing absence causing burnout

Without a handle on managing absence, it’s possible that a company’s lack of awareness and visibility surrounding employee wellbeing is actually causing more burnout in the long-run.

Burnout is a state of mental and physical exhaustion often brought on by long-term work-related stress, or by working in a busy and demanding role for a long time.

The type of workplace culture and environment that exists within an organisation can be damaging to employees over a period of time, and also contribute to burnout.

Levels of burnout may increase if employers are not sensitive to issues such as stress, poor resource planning, absence rates and employee wellbeing. These factors can contribute to a negative, and even toxic, workplace culture.

Where to begin with managing absence

Knowing your organisation’s absence rates is a key indicator in determining the health and wellbeing of your employees. Without good absence management practices, you may be unaware that individuals are struggling to cope, becoming burnt out, and ultimately looking to leave.

In this blog, we look at several bad absence and leave practices that may be harming employees and feeding a negative workplace culture.

Absence management practices that can lead to burnout

A lack of respect for people on leave and ‘the right to disconnect’

Being contacted outside of work hours, or while taking annual leave, is a common occurrence and has only increased following the pandemic thanks to the shift towards remote working. In fact, a study found that 75% of people in the UK said they are contacted by work when on holiday.

Why is this a problem? Being contacted by a line manager or a colleague outside of working hours prevents someone from truly disconnecting from work, and taking the uninterrupted break that they need.

It can also fuel anxiety. An absent employee may start to worry about work while they are away from it, feel pressured to answer an email or phone call, or wonder what the repercussions might be if they don’t make themselves available to help while on holiday.

Several countries have passed ‘the right to disconnect’ laws to prevent contact outside of working hours. A growing number are also considering putting legislation in place, including the UK.

Having work emails or other communication tools connected to your personal phone

Having work emails or other communication tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack connected to your personal phone is convenient, and useful if your work means you don’t always have access to a laptop, but it comes with a harmful temptation to check these apps outside of working hours or while on annual leave.

The idea of being away from work for several hours or days at a time can be anxiety-inducing for some (take a look at our blog on absence anxiety), so checking emails is something of a coping mechanism to ease stress. But the habit of checking emails and always being ‘available’ perpetuates yet more anxiety since employees are prevented from truly switching off from work and taking a step back during their downtime.

And, if an organisation does nothing to dissuade this kind of ‘always-on’ culture (or even supports it), then many employees will grow increasingly burnt out in their roles.

A lack of effective resource planning

Resource planning is a crucial part of leave management – and one that is often mismanaged.

When employees book annual leave, line managers and HR must have clear visibility of who else is off in the team to make sure adequate resources are in place to cover absent employees.

If 3 people in a 4-person team are all due to go on holiday on the same day, for example, the remaining employee will be the one to cover the workloads of their colleagues. This is not only stressful for the individual who may feel unsupported, but it may mean that important tasks fall behind schedule or get overlooked.

If this happens regularly, and too many employees are allowed to take annual leave around the same time, unnecessary stress is placed on employees not taking leave and a culture of resentment can begin to foster.

Proactive and effective resource planning can be achieved with a robust leave management system in place, giving you total visibility of who is taking leave within your team. Make sure you have clear leave policies in place which state how much notice employees need to give when requesting holiday, and limits as to how many people can be on leave at any one time. This will ensure that workloads are not compromised and that leave is used fairly and evenly throughout a team.

A guilt surrounding taking time off work due to sickness

Feeling guilty when having to call in a sick is a common feeling amongst many employees. A survey found that 55% of people are required to give a specific reason for taking a sick day, and 2 out of 3 of them reported feeling like their manager does not believe them.

Because of this, many in the survey reported going to work anyway despite being ill, and almost 3 out of 5 people said they have forced themselves to attend work unless their illness left them physically unable to get out of bed.

The workplace shift we have seen over recent years towards hybrid and remote working has also blurred the lines when it comes to calling in sick. Many might feel an obligation to at least attempt to work from home despite feeling unwell, when they should really be resting.

If people managers and senior leadership teams don’t encourage employees to take a sick day when they need it, this will only lead to a culture of burnout and disengagement.

Scoring employees and rewarding zero-absence

Many organisations who look favourably upon employees with low absence rates, or reward employees who have a clear sickness absence record, may be at risk of helping burnout to increase in the workplace.

The Bradford Factor calculator, for example, scores employees based on how many sickness absences they’ve taken in a given time period. This score can then be compared across an organisation, to give you an idea of which employees are taking a higher number of absences.

This is a useful metric, as any potential issues surrounding absences can be identified and action can be taken.

However, assuming that any employee who has a low absence score is somehow better at their job, works harder or has a better work ethic, is a mistake. Knowing your absence rates can actually help you to identify individuals who may be amazing at their work, but are struggling personally. Mental health issues, long-term health conditions or family issues may be causing them to take more absences from work than usual, and they simply need a little extra support or some reasonable adjustments putting in place to enable them to continue doing their job well.

Likewise, having some kind of reward scheme in place that incentivizes employees to aim for zero sickness absences all year can be detrimental to wellbeing. It places an added pressure on employees, which, combined with the usual stressors of work and personal life, creates a sense of competition amongst colleagues.

Everyone gets sick from time to time, and taking a few days off to recover shouldn’t be seen as negative. In fact, encouraging team members to take a day off when they need it will actually help them to return to work stronger and more productive, rather than battling through illness.

Poor absence tracking and return-to-work processes

With many organisations still using paper and spreadsheets to manage staff absence, or not recording it altogether, it’s no surprise that poor absence tracking and return-to-work processes can leave employees feeling unsupported and burnt out.

And it presents even bigger resource planning, retention and engagement problems for companies.

Without managing sickness absence, organisations will have no sight of how many sick days employees are taking. Any workers taking frequent sickness absence due to mental health or personal issues could be completely overlooked by managers and HR. An open conversation with that individual might be all that’s needed to check-in on their wellbeing and offer support.

Tracking all sickness absences will also shed light on how absence is impacting different areas of an organisation. Absence rates might be higher in one department versus another, and heavy workloads or a lack of resources might be causing it. Having that visibility to drill down into your absence data can show you what’s really going on in your organisation, so that positive changes can be made to enable employees to do their best possible work and improve productivity.

A return-to-work procedure should be in place and followed after every absence. This enables managers and HR to check-in with the employee, discuss the reason for their absence, and make sure they are back on track and ready to return to work. This process helps employees to feel supported and listened to, as you are placing their wellbeing as a priority.

Prioritise employee wellbeing with edays absence management software

With edays, all instances of absence and leave can be recorded in one place for maximum ease and clarity. The reasons for sickness absence can also be recorded, so you can keep track of how your employees may be coping with long or short-term illnesses.

Knowing when your employees are off work will enable you to proactively resource plan, so that things stay on track when people take their deserved annual leave breaks or need to take time off due to sickness. Group calendars, triggers and alerts mean that you have clear visibility of who is off and when, removing the possibility of leave clashes.

Our automated absence reporting feature lets you create reports as and when you need them, so that senior leadership teams and HR can see exactly how absence rates are impacting an organisation and take proactive steps to manage and reduce it.

Click here to book a free personalised demo of edays

Georgina at edays
June 1, 2023

Georgina Mackintosh is an accomplished copywriter and marketing professional with a background that spans several industries. Her writing focuses on HR topics such as employee wellbeing, engagement and experience - as well as absence management best practice, how-to guides and news from the HR sector.