How many of your staff were absent this morning? Short of finding a vaccine for the common cold there’s little you can do to prevent your staff from getting sick. There is, however, increasing evidence that your company culture has a bearing on absence levels.

Although there are certain industries in which absenteeism is a greater problem than others, individual companies are more likely to have an impact on employee absence. If your absence levels are high, first look at your individual departments: is there a line manager with bullying characteristics? Are the working hours too long?”

Your working environment and company culture can play a role in absence levels. Here are some suggestions for managing and reducing absenteeism:

Alternatives to absence

There are days when even the keenest of employees simply want to pull the quilt up over their head and hide from the world, when for whatever reason they feel unable to cope with work that day.

Increasingly, companies are adopting ‘duvet days’, where staff are allowed one or two days off each year which, while not holiday, they are not required to have a sick note for.

However, this sort of lethargy may also be a sign of something more serious like depression. It is advisable that companies either offer some sort of counselling service or support their employee in seeking it. In some cases, early treatment and support can avoid long-term absences in the future, which can be crippling for a small business.

Work-life balance

UK companies are increasingly wising up to the business case for work-life balance. A culture that respects individual, customer and organisational needs can boost staff motivation, loyalty and productivity – benefiting your bottom line.

In practice, this means being as flexible as possible and helping your employees strike a balance between their work and home life, which will accordingly improve staff recruitment, retention and motivation, lowering stress levels and absenteeism.

Promoting a good work-life balance is about recognising that it’s not just working parents who have responsibilities. Everyone has different pressures in their lives. Indeed, many recent surveys have found that the ability to work flexibly is one of the biggest draws to a role for employees.

Some companies have adopted a nine-day fortnight, allowing staff to take one day a week off, and spread those lost hours over the rest of the week, while advances in technology have made home-working a possibility for many employees.

Where to draw the disciplinary line

According to the CIPD, the most common features of organisations’ approaches to absence are disciplinary procedures, line management involvement, leave for family circumstances and return-to-work interviews. Bearing in mind that you want to cut out AWOL scenarios from your office but retain talented and important staff it may be best to find a happy medium.

It’s no good cracking down hard on your employees if you don’t understand the difficulties they may face and return to work interviews can be an effective way of tackling this without being confrontational. While many bosses draw the line at duvet days, supporting your employees’ work-life balance may just confirm to your staff once and for all that they are trusted and worthwhile.

You are in charge and should make it clear that you won’t be manipulated. If individuals are repeatedly taking liberties and their absence is putting pressure on colleagues then it may be time to act and employ disciplinary procedures. But in the short term, the ‘softly, softly’ approach could help avoid taking events this far – and save your business time and money.

Three tips for tackling absence

1) Return to work interviews: An interview with the employee to identify and address any problems that may have caused their absence. Following this, employers may choose to recommend stress counselling, a programme of rehabilitation, or occupational health involvement. Line managers can often be delegated to carry out such interviews, but you should be aware of the outcome.

2) Flexible working: A little bit of flexibility goes a long way. Creating a culture which respects and accommodates for the fact that your employees also have demands and responsibilities outside of work, for instance by offering more flexible working hours, can boost staff motivation and retention and significantly reduce absenteeism.

3) Check your contracts: Your employees’ contracts will set out what action can be taken in the face of repeated absence. You can ask for doctors’ notes, and if necessary refer your employee to an independent doctor.