Shadows represent absent employees

Filling the Gap: Managing Absenteeism in the New Millennium

How HR Responds to the MIA

What 'Lean' Means

Many businesses these days operate as 'lean and mean' as possible to save themselves unnecessary labour costs. This staffing model works wonderfully, as long as everybody shows up every day. We all know, however, this will never be the case for any business. Scheduled vacations get taken. Workers regrettably fall ill; particularly on Fridays and Mondays for some mysterious reason. There are even those employees who still use one of the worst nuisances that can plague an HR department's shift scheduler; the "Surprise Holiday". In fact, as most HR specialists will tell you, between earned vacations, statutory holidays and sick days, employees are off the job about 10% of the time.  It is apparent every company needs to pay a lot of attention to the issue of absenteeism when scheduling shifts.

Here are some of the approaches companies can take to respond to the challenge of being short-staffed, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each. Sadly, like so many other areas in life, there are no perfect solutions, and what might work for one company, may not work for another.

Hiring 'Temps'

This is a popular option for companies where task-specific skills are quickly and easily taught, such as in inventory counting or shelf stocking. Managers can contract with a staffing agency to quickly replace absent skill-sets just for the period they are required, such as the time a shipper/receiver may away on their annual 'vacay'. The effectiveness of this method of absenteeism relief is proportionate to the complexity of the job being temporarily filled. A neurosurgeon, for example, may be a difficult position to fill with a temporary worker, compared to a parking lot attendant.

But don't forget...

Temporary workers always require at least some training to be effective and the more challenging the role they are assuming, the longer the training must take place (12 years minimum for the neurosurgeon example.) Having to teach someone the ropes can actually be less efficient than going without a particular skill set, as hours spent teaching 'newbies' slows down the trainers' own work significantly, or may remove the trainer completely from their regular duties. While being trained, temps are generally negatively productive. They also feel little loyalty to the employer and often require more oversight. They also cost far more than the staff they are replacing as a large slice of the temp bill goes to the staffing agency, not the employee.


This is a concept for absent employee in-filling that is often talked about far more than it is implemented. In theory, it would be great for all employees to be able to be trained to do everyone else's job. This way, in the event of an absence, everyone below the blank slot moves up one position so that the missing position is at the bottom of the org chart, not the middle or top. Additionally, the low-ranked missing position can be filled more easily with a temporary worker or left unfilled with the least amount of inconvenience.
Other advantages of cross-training your employees include:

  • Critical knowledge is never held by only one employee.
  • Employee engagement is enhanced when variety is added to daily tasks.
  • Spiking workloads can be more easily spread across your entire workforce.
  • Duty rotation provides a measure of security from corruption or inefficiencies.
  • People who understand other people's tasks are more empathetic towards their co-workers which can increase morale and foster teamwork.

But don't forget...

Cross-training is stressful for employees. There may be pushback if it is not communicated well and people may feel they are being accused of laziness or being unproductive. As well, there may be resentment if someone is asked to take on the role of someone earning more than the replacement person does, if there is no extra compensation attached to the assignment.
Cross training must never be used in place of proper staffing levels. Employees, no matter how efficient, will never perform at 100% of their capacity. Maxing out employees efforts on a daily basis is undesirable if it leads to burnout; a very possible outcome of such a policy.


Using overtime is one way of adding man-hours to your operations without needing to onboard new or temporary employees or leaving tasks neglected. Many employees welcome the opportunity to make extra money although there are clear limits to the initiative; legally, morally and for those concerned with efficient production.

But don't forget...

Though employers may legally demand overtime from employees, the company must provide 24 hour notice.
Companies cannot allow anyone to work more than 12 hours in one day.
Too much overtime can impact employees' regular jobs due to increased stress and exhaustion.
Workers may get used to receiving fat overtime cheques and rig their day-to-day duties to ensure there will be overtime scheduled whether it is required or not.


For the sake of continuity, some employers include redundancies in their staffing levels so no one is over-tasked and there is always someone on hand to take up the slack of an absent co-worker.  This is arguably the most seamless system available, if outsourcing or operating short-staffed are not realistic options.

But don't forget...

  • Carrying too many employees incurs needless expense when everyone shows up.
  • Of all absenteeism-management options available, depending on how many extra bodies you are paying for, this is the priciest choice labour budget.
  • Under-employed workers can be a distraction for others as idle hands are indeed the devil's workshop.
  • Lack of productivity from select employees may cause resentment among the busier staff.

Operating short-staffed

This is a model many businesses embrace due to the ease of administration. Not every work situation can operate short-handed but for those that can, it is certainly an appealing option. There are no new people to train, slowing production, as people are still performing tasks they are familiar with. With no temp agency or overtime to pay, running short-staffed can be cost effective in the short-term.

But don't forget...

You can't run short forever or it will be apparent you didn't actually need those absent.
Skeleton staffing increases stress and resentment in workers leading to burnout and possible high turnover rates; adding costs to your HR department.
Staffing an operation too thinly often encourages employees to cut corners in proper procedures; doing away with due diligence and safety protocols just to 'get 'er done'.

There are no easy answers to the conundrum of managing absenteeism and no solution works in every situation. Sometimes a mix of options is required to handle staffing issues properly. Only by having a deep understanding of the core tasks of the organization and the abilities and sensibilities of your staff can you achieve a proper response to the inherent problem of absenteeism. No matter what strategy a company may use, they will likely profit from automated shift management software to streamline the redeployment process.

Tags: staffing

Author: Chris McKerracher

Chris McKerracher is a Social Media Marketer and Professional Writer for Industrial NetMedia. Chris has worked as a journalist, editorialist and humourist for a number of Alberta newspapers since 1995. He has also written eight theatrical plays which have been produced with the ninth to be staged in May of 2016.


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