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June 9, 2021

Absenteeism in the manufacturing sector during COVID-19

Adam Aguzzi, VP Manufacturing, Value Advisory at Ceridian, shares research from the Make UK Absence Benchmark report on absenteeism in the manufacturing workforce during the pandemic. And, he discusses how employers can leverage HCM technology to better manage their people moving forward. 

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It goes without saying that the last year has tested employers in many ways. As they continue to navigate the next phase of the post-pandemic landscape, manufacturers are experiencing intense pressure. Health and safety precautions have significantly reduced the threshold for employees to stay home, while expectations are sky-high for companies to keep their customers and employees safe and their businesses viable. Insomuch as managing the evolving pandemic, manufacturers must balance competing interests: workplace policies that prioritise workers’ health concerns while remaining rigid in the face of malingerers.

Focus on employee well-being to improve employee attendance

According to a recent article from UK mental health charity MIND, addressing and improving workers’ mental health for the long term could be the most critical thing that employers do right now. Working under more intense conditions at the peak of the pandemic has heightened stress levels, which isn’t sustainable as companies enter a new phase of recovery. Long term stress can take a psychological toll – hindering productivity, driving up voluntary turnover, and costing businesses huge amounts every year. With stress and anxiety being a leading cause of absenteeism, workers’ emotional health becomes particularly important moving forward.

Absenteeism and COVID-19

In April, the Make UK Roundtable held a discussion on absence with various employers in the manufacturing industry. As part of this roundtable, this year’s Make UK Absence Benchmark unveiled some interesting results. Sickness absence (days lost to sickness absence) was slightly lower in 2020 (5.2 days) compared to both 2018 (5.3 days) and 2016 (5.3 days). As with previous years, manual labour employees are more likely to be off sick than non-manual employees, sitting at 5.8 days and 2.6 days, respectively.

The report also highlighted regional and sectoral differences in employee absence. East Anglia reported 2.8 days lost on average, while the South West was hit harder with 13.2 days lost on average. Among manufacturers, the textile industry saw the highest number of days lost at 11.9 days in 2020. This subtlety could be explained by the fierce demand for PPE production staff, increasing the susceptibility of contracting the virus.

Notwithstanding the concerns the pandemic has brought employers, absence from work seems to deviate from normal pattern regarding employee sickness, including quarantine. Several factors appear to influence these results, starting with the British government introducing the Job Retention Scheme (furlough). Make UK research found that, at its peak of the scheme, 85% of manufacturers were utilising furlough. Therefore, many workers will not have been at work, and any sickness absence in the period would have gone unreported.

Moreover, with many employees working from home, it may be the case that employees were less likely to report sickness absence, which typically stems from having to travel into work and be around colleagues and customers.

Finally, with increased uncertainty and insecurity around employment, an element of presenteeism could be at play. Last year, half of manufacturers surveyed made redundancies, and employees may have felt that a clean absence record would mitigate the risk of being made redundant or placed on furlough. Now, lower absence rates may be preferable from an employer’s perspective, but a nuanced approach is required to ensure that lower rates are not counterproductive to staff morale, engagement, and ultimately, productivity. Presenteeism can reduce a company’s efficiency if employers do not address the uncertainty feeding it.  

Read next: Driving employee experience using data

Taking a deeper dive

Despite the “Great Shutdown,” the manufacturing sector remains largely unaffected operationally, even for those organisations that produce non-essential items. In the 2021 Make UK Roundtable, the common consensus was that manufacturing – both on the production line and in the back-office – will continue to reside on-site after the pandemic. As mentioned, “everyone in manufacturing is expecting to go back to the office sooner or later.”

Although there was a quick transition to working from home when the virus marched across the globe last March, anxiety among employees as they look to the future is twofold: some employees struggle with separating work from personal life while others are skeptical about returning to the physical office. One participant stated that “employees are afraid of being unable to find stable childcare during the pandemic, and thus, prefer telecommuting.”

When asked, most participants agreed, “I’d rather someone with a cold stay at home than come to work until they feel better” was an all too familiar phrase from employers. Such themes point to a vital recommendation: employers must hold mental wellness as a priority, reduce uncertainty through communication, and create a supportive work culture.

How can employers respond to absenteeism?

Perceived risk of potential furlough, working from home, and the desire to keep a clean absence record have all played into reduced absence levels for 2020. Nonetheless, absence is inextricably linked to employee well-being and both need to be measured and managed. Of course, technology can help. Modern cloud solutions can help managers track absences in real-time and respond more immediately to any issues. The insights from real-time data can also help managers have more informed conversations with employees to help address and improve their performance if required. By using employee engagement software, companies can stay in touch with employees, strengthen team interactions, and make employees healthier and help them to live longer.  

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