SOUTH African companies are losing millions of rands every year due to absenteeism as employees continue to miss work due to ill-health, low morale and psycho-social reasons, according to experts.
Occupational medicines specialist at healthcare consulting firm EOH Health, Andrew Thomson, told the Free State Times this week that absenteeism in the country was on a steady rise and it was proving costly to commerce and industry.
He said it was estimated that absenteeism in the workplace cost companies about 9.2 percent of their payroll and companies that did not manage their staff records properly could be losing more.
“There are two main forms, namely short accidental absenteeism which takes up about six percent of a company’s payroll and extended absenteeism which takes up about 3.2 percent,” Thomson said in a telephone interview from his Cape Town base on Wednesday.
He said people normally missed work due to ill-health which in some cases was worsened by the prevalence of HIV and Aids as well as other chronic ailments.
“In some cases people fail to turn up for work due to psycho-social reasons,” Thomson said.
“This may include having to look after a sick child or relative instead of going to work.
“For others it could be an industrial relations issue whereby they are not happy with their working conditions and therefore decide to miss work.”
He added: “There are also some people who choose to be absent so that they can freelance.”
Thomson said some people were however abusing the basic conditions of employment which entitled every employee to a minimum of 30 days of sick leave over a three-year cycle which begins from the day one is hired by a company.
He said some people took this leave as a privilege and chose not to go to work even if they were fit.
“Some people see it as an entitlement and in the process, abuse the sick leave,” Thomson said.
“Generally, it is difficult to know who is genuinely ill but absenteeism in the country is a bit too high.”
Penny Abbott, head of the human resources research initiative at the South African Board for People Practices, said the cost of absenteeism to an organisation varied according to the type of work done.
She said a company needed to consider whether production or sales were really affected by the absence or not and if there was need to find another person to stand in for the absent worker.
“It is important to measure absenteeism and analyse it carefully,” Abbot said.
“Unpaid absenteeism obviously does not cost in terms of wages, but could cost in terms of business disruption, while paid sick leave, which may not be an obvious cost, may not result in business disruption or additional costs to the organisation.”
A research conducted by Corporate Absenteeism Management Solutions about two years ago found that absenteeism due to stress increased slightly in companies around South Africa compared to 2008.
The study was done using the special Absolv absenteeism software which generates data from 150 000 employees at more than 70 South African companies every year.
The information was gathered using data from doctor-issued sick certificates from employees at these firms.
According to the study, this was in line with indications that the country was experiencing an economic downturn.
From January to June 2009, 3.4 percent of all sick leave incidents were due to psychological illness such as stress, depression and anxiety.
In the same period in 2008, 3.1 percent of all sick absenteeism incidents were related to stress.
The study said with the economic situation worsening in the country, many organisations, especially in the industrial sector, were cutting back on staff and this caused uneasiness among staff.
“Employees fear that they will lose their jobs and stress is taking its toll, both financially and emotionally,” the study noted.
“To counter this problem, companies can ask themselves what they can do to reassure their staff and create the right environment to make them happier and more productive.
“If we ignore employee stress levels, it can increase to such a point where it influences their ability to perform.”
The study concluded that December had the lowest absenteeism rate of any month of the year at 1.08 percent, with January following closely behind at 1.43 percent.
Most of those who missed work in December complained of lower back pain.
It was also found that gastroenteritis was the biggest reason employees took time off in January and February every year.
Influenza and respiratory infections emerged the chief causes of workplace absenteeism from March to November each year.