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Absenteeism At The Workplace

Absenteeism At The Workplace

Absenteeism is a major problem in South Africa, particularly in the Public Service where it is reported to be rampant. How does one deal with absenteeism?

Under common law and our labour law, an employee has a fundamental duty to be at work! Sick leave is for when you are sick! If an employee is injured or genuinely sick, it is in neither the employer’s, nor the employee’s best interests for the employee to come to work. The employee might well infect others and could endanger himself and others if he is working around moving machinery (especially dangerous machinery like woodworking machinery!).

That leaves us with employees who take sick leave when they are not genuinely ill. If employees are not aligned with their employer’s goals and are demotivated at work, they are going to absent themselves! That is where leadership and performance management come into the equation.

Reasons for absence

People absent themselves from work for a variety of reasons and then claim sick leave in order to get paid. This is in effect fraud and it is a dismissible offence. The employer needs however, to investigate the reasons and of course, establish whether or not the employee is genuinely ill.

The first step is to examine the employee’s attendance record and establish whether there is a trend or pattern of absenteeism. For example, absence usually occurs before and after weekends and public holidays, after paydays or on a particular day of the week.

A point of caution, an employee’s absenteeism is usually accompanied by sick leave abuse, poor performance, poor timekeeping, unsafe acts, unsociable behaviour at work, family problems and financial difficulties, including the serving of garnishee orders on the employer. Look for a pattern.

Confront the absentee

If a pattern such as suggested above is apparent, the next step is to confront the employee to establish why he or she has taken to absenting themselves from work. The best way to do this is to show concern and to suggest that it would appear from the sick leave taken that the employee is heading for a serious ill health problems. In order to get to the bottom of this, suggest that the correct course of action will be for the employee to undergo a medical evaluation to establish his/her fitness to work.

The mere act of confronting employees is often enough to put an end to a lot of Monday/Friday absence. For example, in one instance, an employee who had religiously taken his 10 days sick leave per annum, after being confronted did not take another day’s sick leave for the next two years!

Medical evaluation

If the employee agrees to undergo a medical, the employer should pay for this, conditional upon the employee agreeing for the results to be made known to the employer. If this is agreed, the employee should be sent to an occupational health doctor for examination.

The doctor should be supplied with a description of the job responsibilities and the physical conditions and pressures of the job. The results of the medical will reveal whether or not the employee is genuinely ill. If the employee is indeed ill, the early detection of the illness might well save his/her life and is likely to reduce medical and sick leave costs in the longer term.


If the results of the medical reveal that the employee is not genuinely ill, then one needs to then establish what else could be the cause. For example, an employee who is in debt may absent himself after payday in order to avoid loan sharks from whom he has borrowed money!

Likewise, an employee with a substance abuse problem may absent himself from work because he is suffering a hangover. A wife who is being abused will absent herself to avoid questions over injuries.

The best way to deal with personal problems giving rise to unsatisfactory performance or conduct is to offer the employee professional counselling. If the employee agrees, the real problem will usually emerge and can be dealt with by way of rehabilitative treatment (e.g. for alcoholism) or counselling.

If an employee has a personal or substance abuse problem, only the employee can deal with it. If the employee chooses to face the problem, it can be overcome. If not, the pattern of absenteeism and other unsatisfactory performance and conduct will continue, regardless of disciplinary action (and deduction of bonuses). The employer therefore needs to put the employee on terms.

All embracing final warning

This is best done by way of an all-embracing final warning, setting out the aspects of the employee’s performance or behaviour which are not acceptable and confirming steps taken by the employer to address these.

It should also note that as the employee has refused to undergo a medical, counselling or rehabilitative treatment any further shortcomings in the areas listed could result in the termination of the employee’s services.

Limit sick leave

It is important to note that in terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, if an employee is absent for more than two consecutive working days, or on more than two occasions in an eight week period, the employer is entitled to require the employee to bring a certificate for every day’s absence. If the employee fails to do so, the employer may treat it as absence without leave and may take appropriate disciplinary measures.

If the employee has exceeded his sick leave entitlement he should be advised that he will not be paid sick leave, even if a sick certificate is produced. He should also be advised that his services could be terminated on the grounds of incapacity.

If absenteeism is closely monitored and acted upon as suggested, it should not be necessary to pay an attendance bonus. That money would be better spent on rewarding good performance – not merely being at work which is every employee’s duty any way!

In conclusion, remember that failure to take action when an employee is repeatedly sick or absent can be very demotivating to employees who do not abuse sick leave and is an invitation to them to also start absenting themselves!

For more information on B&A’s accredited training courses and IR/HR consulting services, contact your local B&A office at Durban (031-3094627), Johannesburg 0861-474722, Cape Town 021-5270044, Port Elizabeth 041-3682019, Kokstad 039-7271773, Margate 039-3122698, Richards Bay 035-7531255 or click here