The Real Reason People Miss Work (and What To Do About It)

You have lots of reasons to miss work — you’re sick, your kid is sick, you have a doctor’s appointment, you have an accident, you take a vacation, your dog is sick, it’s Monday, it’s Friday, the weather is great, the weather is terrible…

Everybody has to miss work occasionally, but when the excuses start digressing into what day of the week it is, you likely have a problem with employee engagement.

Employee attendance is a simple behavioural indicator of how engaged people are in the workplace. It’s not the only indicator, but it’s an easy place to start.

Whether you’re a leader struggling to keep your employees consistently in the office, or you’ve been taking a few extra days off yourself, take a look at the root of the issue of employee attendance:

If people aren’t showing up, they’re not engaged.

Why do we go to work?

There are two reasons people go to work:

  1. Outcome expectations
  2. Efficacy expectations

First, they want a particular outcome from working. They believe this job will lead to something they value. For most jobs, a simple outcome expectation is the pay.

Second, they need to believe they can achieve that outcome. They need to know they are capable of accomplishing their desired results.

If you lack a positive outcome expectation and/or the ability for people to achieve that outcome, business is over. No one will ever come to work again.

It’s basic social learning theory in action. If a person comes to work and does their job, they expect to get the outcome they want.

But, when they stop getting the results they expect, attendance starts to slip and negative sources of influence begin to gain traction.

Employee Attendance and the Six Sources of Influence

Work = Paycheck is basic motivation formula. But at VitalSmarts, we break influence into six sources.

Whenever we’re influenced to make a decision — in this case skipping work — there are multiple factors at play.

These sources of influence can be positive or negative. Sometimes they help us achieve our goals. Other times, they’re the obstacles we must overcome in order to achieve those goals.

When we break down how our attendance is influenced by these six sources, we see just a few reasons people wouldn’t show up as often as they could:

  1. Personal Motivation: I hate my job. There are more fun things to do today.
  2. Personal Ability: My car wouldn’t start. My child is sick. I don’t have a way to be there.
  3. Social Motivation: My family doesn’t think I should work here. I hate my boss.
  4. Social Ability: I don’t have backup for transportation or childcare. My spouse took a job so I don’t need to work now.
  5. Structural Motivation: I earned just enough pay to take me off government assistance. Now, I can’t afford childcare. I’m better off if I don’t work.
  6. Structural Ability: My workplace is too far from where I live. It’s unpleasant in the building.

We want our employees to WANT to come to work. But if their expectations go unmet, these obstacles grow. If we want to fix the problem, we need to work on eliminating their obstacles and meeting their expectations.

Overcoming Obstacles of Influence

Some days, people legitimately cannot come to work, but if this seems to become a habit rather than an occasional dilemma, it’s time to look a little closer at the sources of influence.

What prevents you or your coworkers from coming to work? What personal, social, or structural excuses keep them from being there as often as possible?

What could you change?

Maybe you offer a way for people to connect so they can carpool to work. This would help with car trouble (personal ability) while building relationships amongst coworkers (social motivation).

Maybe you offer free or discounted childcare (personal and social ability) at your workplace if the need is high.

Perhaps you improve the aesthetics of the building (structural motivation) so it’s a more pleasant place to work.

Then, look at their expectations:

  • Are their outcome expectations being met?
  • Are they paid enough? Are they paid on-time?
  • Do they have other goals they’re trying to reach? Are they able to reach those goals?
  • Can they actually do the tasks required of them?

When attendance is dropping, take a look at the bigger picture. Make sure expectations are achievable and use the sources of influence to your advantage.

If you want your employees to engage their work, the first step is getting them to show up.

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