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Get to the Root of Low Morale and Improve Employee Attendance Problems

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No matter your role or your seniority level, how people show up—and if they show up—has a tremendous effect on morale. Unhappy workers are less productive, and high absenteeism (chronically missing work), only makes relationships among team members or within your department more stressed.

Absent colleagues also affect your bottom line. According to “Absenteeism: The Bottom-Line Killer”—research done by the workforce solution company Circadian—unscheduled absenteeism costs roughly $3,600 per year for each hourly worker and $2,650 each year for salaried employees. With hourly workplace absenteeism rates ranging from 5%-10% on any given day, those costs add up quickly.

The biggest problem is that costs (and not just financial ones) snowball over time, with absenteeism and low morale creating a cycle for low productivity. For example, it’s difficult for members of a team to go above and beyond expectations when they are waiting on results from an absent member, or worse, have to cover for that member’s tasks instead of making more progress on their own goals. Resentment builds, especially if managers don’t address the issue.

How to Improve Employee Attendance Problems

Getting to the root of low morale is crucial—and it can be tricky. The group’s low morale may be the reason for an individual’s absenteeism. Or, just as likely, the individual absenteeism is creating rifts among the team, which is lowering morale. Increasing numbers of absences among team members or regularly calling sick (never accruing leave) are two of many signs that a problem exists. To uncover the underlying reasons, managers need to be able to talk about the issue openly and in a way that will land positively with the often absent team member—and other members on the team.

Good managers take low morale and absenteeism seriously, because when addressed early and often, it precludes larger breakdowns in departmental or even company culture. But it’s equally true that good managers also fall prey to inertia when it comes to tough conversations. That may be partly because their own style of leadership might be contributing to the problem or even triggering conflict. This possibility must be part of the discovery. In our work at Core Strengths, preparing for these kinds of conversations is a target of our work in talent effectiveness.

When we coach managers, we start with personal assessment data about what motivates them and each member of their staff. Then we ask how the chronically absent (or unhappy) team member’s motivation and strengths stack up to the manager’s (because styles can clash). We also ask the manager to examine whether the core motivations of that person are being met. For example, if the person’s reason for showing up every day involves the satisfaction he gets from being on a team and supporting others (a Blue motivation in the Core Strengths lexicon), yet that person is rarely part of meetings, a manager might start by adjusting that person’s role to include more team activity. If another often absent employee is motivated by the potential for advancement (a Red motivation), yet the role doesn’t offer that upward mobility, the manager would do well to discuss this disconnect openly—and coach the team member to better performance so that she might qualify for a more upwardly mobile position.

In some cases, absenteeism is caused by personal issues that a team member may be reluctant to discuss, such as health problems or challenges with children, elderly parents, or other family members. Reaching out and starting a conversation that is unthreatening will greatly lessen the burden on the team member, and together the manager—and even other members of the team—can come up with short-term solutions that allow the burdened employee a chance to address personal issues, without suffering in silence and allowing resentments to build among co-workers. Simply showing care, as a leader, is a potent way to quickly improve the manager’s relationship with their team.

When the problem is clearly not the leader but a dysfunction within the team itself, we work to open up relationships among team members. We begin by dividing up the team by motivational type, where they discover that there are others on the team who share their reasons for showing up each day (and it’s often not someone they would have guessed). When the whole team reconvenes, there can be a healthy discussion about these similarities and differences, not only in motivation but also style of communication (the two go hand-in-hand), creating new channels of communication that were previously nonexistent.

We see again and again how this open discussion using a common, non-judgmental language leads to a team culture where people finally discuss the elephant in the room (absenteeism and low morale being only two of many types). This immediately leads to less avoidance of work or of particular people—and greater shared understanding for the periods in life we all undergo where we really must spend time elsewhere to be our best at work.

How to Discuss Absenteeism With an Employee

Here are some of the conversations to have as a manager or as a colleague to break the ice and uncover the real reason your team is dealing with either absenteeism or chronically low morale:

  • First and foremost, if you are a manager and your relationship with your team has negative aspects, address them by beginning to build a foundation where your direct reports feel understood and valued by you. Ultimately, they must feel safe enough to share their thoughts and feelings so you can get to the root of low morale. Coaching (whether in-person or through a platform) can go a long way in preparing you to have the conversations needed to make this shift.
  • Gather basic attendance data and book some non-threatening one-on-one time with affected employees to broach the subject of absenteeism. You might lead with a line as simple as: “I’ve noticed that you are regularly absent three days a month. I care about you and wonder if there’s anything else going on that I could help you navigate through here at work.”
  • Conduct an anonymous survey about morale, including questions about what people want to achieve as individuals in their roles. Give your team the chance to truly speak up about what matters to them. (This can also be done in a 360-style meeting, but sometimes first getting a sense of just how rough the waters are is a good idea.)
  • Provide continuing education or offer for people on your team the chance to attend a conference of their own choosing (given the subject matter also benefits current team goals). Education might not always be in the budget, but it can have a huge ROI in terms of gaining insight into the direction your talented people would like to take their careers and how your department or organization could benefit from investing in their dreams.
Dr. Mike Patterson

Dr. Mike Patterson

Dr. Mike Patterson is a principal at Core Strengths in Carlsbad, Calif. and teaches in the doctoral program at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. He is also the co-author of Core Strengths: Results through Relationships training and the book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places (Jossey-Bass). Contact him at mike@corestrengths.com.