People calling in sick is an unavoidable part of business life. You’ll never prevent it - people are always going to need to stay off work when they’re ill (although you can reduce it with sensible absence management strategies).

But what about non-sickness absence? These are the situations where someone has to stay off work for reasons other than being ill. There’s a wide variety of them, and a number of ways of deal with it.

Some of these are inevitable - life happens to us all, and a 100% clear attendance record is an unlikely dream for most employees. But there are plenty of ways to reduce non-sickness absence, and they’re simpler than you might think.

First we’ll define what non-sickness absence is, then explore strategies to deal with it effectively.

What is non-sickness absence?

Firstly, 'sickness absence' covers things like day-to-day illnesses, colds, stomach bugs, fevers, and the like.

It also involves long-term sickness absence that might be caused by ongoing medical conditions, such as recurring illnesses, injuries, mental health and addiction issues, or musculoskeletal issues that need physiotherapy.

(We’re also seeing symptoms of COVID-19 become a new category of sickness absence, as it requires an additional period of self-isolation to prevent infecting others.)

Non-sickness absence has a number of issues that cause it, including:

  • Pregnancy
  • Childcare
  • Bereavement
  • Being the victim of crime
  • Legal proceedings
  • Home problems (e.g. boiler breakdowns in winter, floods, pest infestation)
  • Pet care
  • Relationship issues (breakups, divorces, conflicts)

You’d also include any of the other mad things life can throw at us unexpectedly. Maybe someone's gone viral on TikTok and have to respond to media enquiries for a day. Maybe a tractor crashed into their shed and they need to sort it out. Or a neighbour got stuck in a tree and they spent the morning helping them out. Weird stuff like that.

We’ve got an almost-exhaustive list over on our most common causes of absenteeism page.

How to prevent non-sickness absence

There’s two broad approaches to preventing this sort of absence: reactive and proactive.

Reactive management

Reactive absence management involves waiting until things happen, basically, and figuring it out from there.

You might choose to go with punishment; if someone’s taking the mick by skipping work with (what you think are) flimsy excuses, you could add it to their file and note points on a punitive scale like the Bradford Factor. With enough strikes on this record, you’d go down the disciplinary route, which could eventually lead to dismissal.

Or if that’s not ideal (and the Bradford Factor rarely is) you could decide on a different approach each time it occurs. Maybe you’d ask them to make the lost day up another time, or move them to a different shift pattern that better suits their life.

While this on-the-fly management approach can have advantages - it can promote creative solution-finding and test how agile you are as a business - it’s not a guarantee of success. And it’s not always fair to everyone.

Making things up as you go, especially if you don’t have a properly documented absence management policy, will lead to mixed messaging, claims of unfairness, and an increased likelihood of conflict down the line. It’s a recipe for unrest, and rarely works.

Proactive management

So the alternative is proactively dealing with these issues as best you can, and putting frameworks in place for employees to better deal with the inevitabilities of life. This helps solve the problems before they happen.

It mostly involves helping employees bring improvements to their health, wellbeing and lifestyle, putting them in a much better position to deal with setbacks, and giving them the freedom to deal with them properly.

Firstly, it means providing a healthy environment for work. Physically, this means offices that put people’s needs first. In a time where we’re rethinking the entire concept of an office, this one’s hard to prescribe. Basic safety needs will be a priority - whether that’s social distancing provisions, increased hygiene, or regular health checks.

Before the pandemic we were questioning the usefulness of open-plan offices; it’s hard to see them staying in fashion for much longer. People need quiet and privacy to concentrate, with opportunities for mixing & mingling to share ideas with colleagues. If people are going to spend even half their time in the office, they need it to be comfortable and conducive to uninterrupted work. Endless distraction leads to frustration and burnout - a common cause of absence and poor performance.

Flexible working arrangements are important too. This means provisions like remote working options (now's the perfect time to start this), supported by programs to help avoid long commutes. Helping people cycle to work will be an essential workplace benefit in the near future - discount schemes and access to training classes for nervous road cyclers are a good start.

Alternative working hours are a key part of this; whether it's shift patterns that better suit people's lives or 4-day work weeks, giving people the chance to escape the restrictions of 9-5 living can drastically improve their wellbeing.

And then there's time off from work. Simply put, providing a more varied and generous allowance for taking time off means staff are much less likely to take unexpected days away from work.

Start with a generous holiday allowance policy, to ensure everyone's well-rested.

Then add unsick days - where employees take time off to proactively improve their health, whether that's by going to a physiotherapist, a spa, psychotherapy, or for dental treatments. Anything that doesn't need symptoms to justify, but is still essential for maintaining good health.

Along with this, life leave is something to plan for - days off to deal with important things that aren't related to health or leisure. Home deliveries, boiler breakdowns, or the above example of a tractor crashing into your shed. When life gives you lemons, these are the days you need to take.

Finally, understanding childcare needs is essential, too. Allowing someone to work from home if their child is unwell can prevent so much stress; making parents' lives easier means they'll be better suited to do their best work.

And to tie it all up, having a properly documented absence policy that clearly explains the above is a must. Your culture can be as informal as you like, but not having the rules laid out simply is a recipe for mass confusion.

It may seem like a lot of reasons for absence, but recognising people have lives outside work and dealing with problems in advance means your business has fewer unexpected absences to deal with.