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Tackling absenteeism through DEI: With understanding, empathy and inclusivity

by Natasha Nicholson

Although absenteeism has long plagued organizations, only recently has the link between absenteeism and a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) come to light. And the examination of that connection has revealed some startling consequences.

According to a recent report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Absenteeism due to anxiety, worry, stress, or frustration stemming from experiencing or witnessing unfair treatment based on race or ethnicity in the workplace may have cost U.S. businesses up to $54 billion in the past year.” 

Bolstered by recent research and prompted by a cultural transformation that has put the spotlight on DEI, the realization is setting in that absenteeism is a symptom of the problem, whereas a lack of inclusion, being the recipient of microaggressions or outright discriminatory behavior—all resulting in a toxic workplace environment, could be a key cause. 

In this article, we’ll look at the underlying reasons, not just the resulting behavior, that affects absenteeism and explore the steps you can take to tackle these issues. 

Taking a New Approach

Aside from emergencies, injuries, and job hunting as part of an intention to leave the organization, other causes of absenteeism include stress, burnout, bullying and harassment, family/childcare, low morale or illness. 

To manage absenteeism, organizations have traditionally focused on some combination of disciplining the offending employees, offering praise and incentives to those with good attendance, requiring verification of medically related absences or applying structural management solutions, such as intense employee monitoring or restructuring leave policies.

But a singular focus on these measures misses the mark when it comes to the heart of the issue—understanding why employees are taking time off, to begin with. Beyond disciplinary policies, managers must gain an understanding of their employees’ experiences at work, how it relates to their behavior and learn to understand their employees in a more holistic way.

Central to that approach is looking at the employee’s experience in its entirety. According to the Gallup report, Designing the Employee Experience to Improve Workplace Culture and Drive Performance, “The employee experience is the journey an employee takes with your organization. At its heart is this question: How are employees experiencing their workplace? The answer is the sum of all interactions an employee has with an employer, from prerecruitment to post-exit. It includes everything from major milestones and personal relationships to technology use and the physical work environment.”

The reports suggest that how an employee feels about their experience in the workplace can “directly affect employee engagement, retention, performance and development,” including absenteeism. 

Let’s look at the steps you can take to explore and assess your employee experience, address the underlying issues of absenteeism, and understand the relationship of absenteeism to diversity, equity and inclusion.


1. Identify the cause of absenteeism: Consider whether it may relate to a lack of DEI

Use both quantitative, qualitative and informal methods of data collection to determine the underlying causes of absenteeism, including addressing questions like these.

  • Is there something unique about the employee’s personal identity or life circumstances that is causing their actions?
  • To what degree might harassment, bullying or microaggressions be impacting an employee’s need to be away from work?
  • Do people feel excluded from opportunities because they are considered different?
  • Do your employees feel that the work environment is toxic, unhealthy and negatively affecting their well-being?

If your answer to any of these questions was “yes,” the root cause of the offending behavior may be rooted in a lack of attention and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

2. Provide training that fosters empathy and inclusion

A surprising tool in your arsenal to address absenteeism is also a very human concept. According to SHRM’s report, Empathy: DE&I’s Missing Piece,  report “The organizations that make empathy a top priority—through action—will cultivate the healthiest and most attractive workplaces for people to achieve their full potential.” The reward will be the cultivation of higher-performing employees. Case in point, “The majority of workers (78 percent) who expressed an opinion say employees who demonstrate empathy at their organization are viewed as better overall performers.”

The study suggests making training central to your approach. “With the help of HR, one of the best ways for organizations to promote empathy is by proactively training their workers—from C-suite executives and people managers to entry-level employees—to understand the nature of empathy and to behave more empathetically. Integrating empathy into workplace culture sets the right expectations for workers.”

For the greatest effect, choose training that is nuanced, relatable and includes real-life scenarios that both demonstrate and instruct empathetic behavior. 

3. Adjust systems, processes and foster engagement to create connection and build inclusivity

When employees feel engaged, they are more likely to feel connected to the organization, reducing both absenteeism and turnover. Assess processes and procedures and look at what you can do to create a more inclusive organization. Examine how you can provide employees at all levels opportunities for connection, visibility and advancement. Possible adjustments and initiatives include:

  • Review your hiring and advancement procedures. Do your procedures and processes have “built-in” barriers to inclusion? For instance, emphasizing a homogeneous “culture fit” may thwart attempts at creating diversity. Solve this by seeking out and attracting a diverse recruitment pool that’s reflective of your diversity targets. Recognize and tackle interviewer or process biases and demonstrate throughout the process that diverse candidates will be included and valued. 
  • Consider adding allyship/advocacy and mentorship programs. As part of elevating your DEI program, you’ll want to look for a variety of ways to create engagement and continuous improvement. Consider fortifying your DEI initiative with related programs, including allyship/advocacy, mentorship or career sponsors. By doing this, you’ll be able to draw time and attention towards diverse employees who might otherwise be overlooked.
  • Enable diverse teams to thrive. To help your diverse hires thrive, start by weeding out any micro-aggressions through communication, education and training. Reduce in-group/out-group dynamics to pave a path toward inclusivity. Create cross-group interactions around specific goals and initiatives, celebrating shared success along the way. In doing so, you’ll enable diverse individuals to cultivate connections, and foster a richness in thinking that harnesses the value of diversity for your organization.
  • Unify employees through engagement. Engage employees in conversations that build inclusivity, providing them with opportunities to offer input and be an integral part of the solution. Adapt your culture so that everyone can identify and belong to it. Design a “listening ear” to give everyone an equal voice. Nurture conversations that focus on both the moral basis as well as the business case for DEI. Help everyone involved to understand that it takes work to fully value and incorporate the unfamiliar. Emphasize that inclusion benefits everyone.

By looking at the whole employee experience, understanding the underlying issues of absenteeism, assessing connections to DEI and creating meaningful engagement, you will be able to help your organization move beyond managing the symptoms of absenteeism to tackling the real causes and sometimes hidden issues that exacerbate the problem. And in doing so, you will not only manage absenteeism, but you’ll also cultivate a healthy workplace where employees are more connected, motivated and productive.

Originally published by HR.com

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