Study: Supporting Employees Could Improve Absenteeism Rates

According to new research, employees working alongside coworkers who condone or accept absenteeism may be more likely to miss more work – but only if they consider their supervisors unsupportive.

Researchers from several universities studied 508 workers within the transportation authority of a large U.S. municipality that closely monitors employee attendance and enforces a strict absence policy. They examined employees' absenteeism rates and asked questions surrounding the degree to which 20 possible reasons for coworkers' work absence might be “justifiable.” Reasons ranged from the individual’s own illness symptoms to personal situations such as parental illness or an important event at a child’s school.

The participants also were asked to rate their supervisor’s supportiveness. Employees indicated how often during the past month their immediate supervisor assisted them in various ways, such as “talked you through work-related problems, helping you come up with solutions,” and “provided you with encouragement about your work.” The participants responded using a 5-point scale ranging from 0 for “never” to 4 for “several times a day.”

Researchers found that even in workplace cultures that condone absenteeism, employees are not likely to have higher absenteeism rates if they feel supported by their supervisors.

“An employee culture that approves of missing work might result in higher employee absenteeism when coupled with aversive work conditions if a supervisor is considered unsupportive, but it seems to have no effect at all when employees feel their supervisor is supportive,” said co-author Peter Bamberger, Ph.D., of Tel Aviv University and the Smithers Institute of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “This may be because employees want to reciprocate positive treatment and avoid causing any problems due to their absenteeism that could negatively impact their supervisors.”

The study also examined whether a job's level of risk influenced how often employees missed work, but the results suggested that an employee’s perception of danger on the job did not itself play a role in determining absenteeism. In addition, having peers who think it’s OK to miss a lot of work days influenced employees to miss more work only when the employees felt their supervisors were not supportive.

“The findings provide useful guidance for companies and organizations that are dealing with a counterproductive employee subculture that condones missing work,” said lead author Michal Biron, Ph.D., of Israel’s University of Haifa and the Netherlands’ Tilburg University. “Leadership will do well to provide frontline supervisors with training and resources so that they can be supportive of their employees who deal with tough work environments.”

The study was published online in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Applied Psychology.

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