6 practical tips to improve employee attendance

Anna Roberts & Clea Grady

Aug 2022 ⋅ 7 min read

The gold clock at Grand Central Station in Manhattan, New York City

An employee missing work for a day shouldn't scupper your business. If they're off for another day, you can probably still work around them. But what about employees who take three, four, or five days off regularly and start ghosting you when you call?

Staff attendance can often seem out of your control. There are so many different reasons for absence, as well as individual circumstances to consider.

But if you feel you have a significant staff attendance problem at your business, then it could mean there’s something work-related going on.

Luckily, there  are plenty of ways you can try to tackle that.

Here are a few of them.

1. Track staff leave

Hunches may take you far in many aspects of business, but you need to be systematic when it comes to recording employee absence. Especially if you want to improve attendance, as you need to have a baseline to work from.

Employees need and want to be treated fairly. If a manager has no problem with one team member taking a week off sick, they shouldn't have a problem when another employee is absent for a similar amount of time.

Of course, context also plays a part, but that’s why tracking things properly is essential.

To maintain fairness and avoid legal issues down the line, keep a record of employee absence. You can use a basic spreadsheet, HR software, or a people management platform like RotaCloud.

In particular, we recommend using a measure like the Bradford Factor to better calculate the impact employee absences have on your business.

And with accurate data, you can prove or dismiss any hunches you may have.

Tracking absences is unlikely in itself to improve attendance (particularly in the long term), but it’s a great starting point to combine with other changes and processes.

2. Set clear expectations

Your workplace culture will determine the extent to which absences are 'accepted'. That may sound a little strange - after all, no manager wants their staff to be absent - but companies undoubtedly have different expectations around employee attendance.

Consider Company A and Company B:

Company A is a fast-growing startup in a competitive field, backed by huge investments. Employees, managers, and entire departments are under pressure to meet and exceed targets. During the hiring process, new starters are told they’ll  be working in a high-pressure environment and are expected to work long days (or even at the weekend) when necessary. Taking absences for anything other than family emergencies and serious illnesses is not the norm. No-one wants to let their team down.

Company B, on the other hand, is a bustling local restaurant. Although absences are a hassle to manage, everyone involved knows that it's too much of a risk to have sick staff preparing and serving food to customers.

Company B asks employees to call in sick with as much notice as possible so that cover can be arranged, and actively reminds employees that they should not be serving guests while ill.

There isn't a right or wrong approach here - what's important is that employees understand and have bought into the workplace culture: employees at Company A know they’re expected to take very few absences, while workers at Company B know that they need to call in sick as soon as possible if they’re unwell.
Workplace expectations are created through internal communication, culture, and management, but you can also provide more concrete definitions via an employee handbook or similar document. Here you can set out expectations for attendance, including what might count as 'excessive absenteeism'. It's important to outline your disciplinary process as well, so that employees understand the consequences of failing to meet these sort of expectations at work.

3. Boost morale and employee engagement

Five men in smart casual clothes having fun and jumping into the air, in a sunlit hallway

The above two steps require fairly minimal changes at your business. But if it’s missing from your business, then it can take significantly more work to boost staff morale.

Don't avoid making changes because of that, however, as ignoring dwindling morale can be hugely damaging. Improving attendance at work and boosting employee morale go hand-in-hand. Low morale causes higher absenteeism. Higher absenteeism lowers morale. You're left with a vicious circle.

Taking positive action to prevent this dilemma from occurring needn't be costly. Improving morale and engagement can start with just a few small changes for most businesses, such as:

  • Trust your employees. Show you respect them and that you trust them with increased responsibility.
  • Recognise achievements. Go out of your way to show appreciation when an employee performs well. And always thank employees at the end of the day.
  • Listen more. Increasingly, employees want their managers (and senior managers) to listen to their ideas, suggestions and complaints. By showing even entry level employees that their feedback can make a real difference, you can boost morale across the team.
  • Move towards a more ‘open office’ culture. Dispel the 'us verus them' vibe and be more inclusive.

For more on how to tackle staff engagement, find out why improving employee experience at your business will help with both staff retention and recruitment.

4. Reduce sick leave

Now, we're not suggesting that you should force employees to come into work when they’re sick. But in general, employers may be able to help to prevent some health problems and illnesses from occurring in the first place, or at least lessen their impact.

Covid shone a light on the importance of hygiene for us all, and perhaps no more so than in the workplace. If we get ill, our coworkers get ill, and it disrupts everything from productivity levels to customer service and turnover. It’s vital that we now maintain the good hygiene standards put in place because of the pandemic, even though much of life is returning to how it was before.

There are other things that businesses can do to assist the wellbeing of their employees, from providing healthy snacks and implementing cycle-to-work schemes, to being advocates for better workplace mental health. In the mid-long-term, anything that you can do to positively influence the health and wellbeing of your employees will indirectly cut sick leave.

To give any new initiative the best chance of success, it’s worthwhile  discussing your plans with your staff to find out which options they think will be most effective and are excited about. There's no point organising free fruit if no one will eat it!

Five women and two men sitting round a wooden table at an informal work meeting

5. Communicate with your team

Typically, when the frequency of absence starts to become a problem, a supervisor sets up a meeting with the individual in question to talk about it. At this meeting, the employee might be given the chance to explain what’s going on before the supervisor asks for improvement and warns of disciplinary measures.

Interventions like this tend to achieve very little, with the stress of sanctions only adding to an employee's problems. Instead, communication needs to take place during and after every period of absence for every staff member.

Supervisors should be empathetic: step into the employee's shoes and make efforts to understand their situation. Some people may be reluctant to share details about particular health issues or family illnesses, so don't pry.

Instead, suggest ways you can adjust their working hours or workload, and point them towards support resources. Check in on the employee after a couple of days to see how they're going and offer more changes and support if required.

If an employee is absent for a long period of time (say, more than two consecutive weeks) be sure to hold a return to work meeting. Here you can:

  • Check they’re well enough to return to their role
  • Update them on company news, announcements, and new hires
  • Explain who's been covering their work
  • Discuss and prioritise various tasks
  • Talk about the reason for their absence, how it was managed, and what will happen if similar circumstances occur again.

This process will significantly help an employee transition back to work. And by staying in touch and supporting staff through illness or a change in personal circumstances, you’ll earn long-term goodwill as an employer.

6. Train your supervisors in policy and procedure

All the initiatives and absence policies in the world won't do any good if your supervisors are not aware of them, and do not support or adopt them.

Training your supervisors about workplace attendance should be the norm at any business. But if that’s not been standard until now, then start with the basics and take it from there:

  • Are they familiar with the attendance and absence policies?
  • Do they know how to log attendance?
  • Do they know how and when to apply disciplinary procedures?

Although you probably covered all this during their onboarding, regular reminders are necessary to keep protocol and process front of mind and relevant for all staff. Training your more senior employees will not only help towards improving attendance at work, it will create a culture where talking about it is natural and normal (which should also positively influence attendance).

Depending on the time and resources you have available, you could also train your supervisors in more specific areas of attendance management, such as how to sensitively manage a grieving employee or recognise signs of burnout and stress.

Wrap up

Before you can hope to tackle an absence problem at your business, you must try to learn the root cause. Data is invaluable here, so we recommend using time and attendance software to keep track of staff  hours and leave.

It's also worth trying out a few initiatives to try to cut down on the length and frequency of illnesses and injuries picked up in the workplace. Not all your efforts will be successful, but by gathering feedback from your staff you'll stand a better chance at finding something that works for your business.

Training and communication are the final two steps you need to get right - and they're perhaps the most important of all.

Overall, there's no one way that’s the best way to improve attendance at work — you need to be doing multiple things, all of the time, in order to make a lasting difference. But, if you suspect your absence rates are higher than average then implementing as many of the ideas above will make things better — for you, for your business, and for your employees.

Ready to reclaim your workday?

RotaCloud users spend 66% less time planning rotas than those who rely on spreadsheets.