Analysing absenteeism

ITIJ 209, June 2018

Illness can strike at any time, and it’s inevitable that employees will sometimes need time off to recover. From a global perspective, the propensity to take sick days differs from country to country for a variety of reasons, creating challenges for global employers looking for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, says Dr Mitesh Patel, Medical Director at Aetna International

A study by the International Journal of Cross Cultural Management (IJCCM) threw up some interesting observations. The research, initially carried out in 2013 and updated in 2017, claimed a close link between culture and absenteeism. In fact, this was a more important factor than the attitudes of individual employees when it came to taking time off work.
When respondents in nine countries were asked how many days in the past six months they had been absent from work due to illness or forpersonal reasons, Japan topped the table for the fewest number of days off, while India was firmly rooted to the bottom:
Japan – 1.49 days.
US – 1.67 days.
Mexico – 1.87 days.
Nigeria – 2.87 days.
Trinidad – 3.05 days.
Ghana – 3.72 days.
Canada – 4.76 days.
Pakistan – 4.99 days.
India – 8.20 days.
Official statistics showing the number of sick days taken by country are difficult to come by, but we can compare the IJCCM’s results to data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS). The ONS reported that, in 2016, about 137 million working days were lost due to illness and injury, roughly 4.3 days per worker – and the lowest rate in the UK since 1993, when it was 7.2 days.
A global problem
Of course, there are any number of reasons for the levels of absenteeism linked to different countries. However, the IJCCM survey did point to a difference in days taken between developing and developed countries, citing factors such as variations in healthcare infrastructures. The availability of social support structures to look after unwell family or friends while someone worked was also a contributor.
Whatever the reasons, however, we do know that absenteeism has a significant economic impact. Mercer, for example, has estimated that with two in five of Singapore’s workforce predicted to be older than 50 by 2030, absenteeism from work is expected to worsen and lead to productivity loss that might cost the country S$3.3 billion a year. 
So how does information like this help the global employer looking to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity? The answer, in truth, is that these surveys highlight what a complicated area this is.
Tackling the issue
Reducing absenteeism is a long-term process that needs the underlying causes to be fully understood and effective strategies developed to deal with them. Factors like changing the culture of an organisation can be particularly challenging, but established tools already exist for many when it comes to another important influencer: employee health. 
Many global employers will already have access to tools that can help them improve the absenteeism experience amongst overseas staff members through their international health insurance programmes. This type of cover efficiently supports staff members who become unwell and need quick and easy access to first-class healthcare treatment. But international health insurance often comes with a range of benefits that proactively support overall employee wellness:
  • - Employee assistance programmes offer a confidential helpline that can advise on a range of issues and, importantly, support staff struggling to deal with life away from home or the stresses of a new working environment.
  • - Health risk assessments allow health conditions to be identified before they become problematic and difficult to treat. 
  • - Travel risk information and services can physically extract an employee from dangerous situations.
  • - Virtual health facilities allow employees to quickly and easily talk to a doctor through a PC or mobile device.
  • - Experienced teams from the health insurer can help staff to plan their healthcare needs before they leave for their new destination. Support includes drug translations, advising where to buy drugs safely and discussing how the local prescription healthcare environment works, minimising surprises for newly arrived expatriates.   
Absenteeism can be affected by any number of factors, including occasional high-profile events like the football World Cup and characteristics specific to individual countries. Health will always be one of the main reasons for taking days off, however, and employers with overseas staff members have a range of tools available that allow employees to manage their own health. The key for corporates is to raise awareness of the tools on offer, as increased usage could help to reduce time off work and increase overall productivity. 

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