Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 4 November 2013

Low efforts, low satisfaction: Combatting the new workplace epidemic

Recent reports cite absenteeism as a major reason for South Africa losing its competitive edge. Many employees stay away for minor ailments and use all allowable sick-leave every year. Often this is just due to poor motivation and because they are chronically dissatisfied with their jobs.

South Africa now loses more than R19 billion per year due to sick absenteeism. During 2012, 3.96% of all workers were absent from their jobs, up from 0.7% in 2000. This is an increase of 466%. Between 2009 and 2011 one quarter of all workers claimed maximum statutory allowance for sick leave. Apart from all the legitimate health issues which cite influenza and back pain as two of the most common health problems, one has to wonder how much of our ill-health is due to stress, personal unhappiness and psychosomatic issues.

One also has to wonder if it is not sometimes due to the ease with which an employee can stay away. According to the Adcorp Employment Index reviewing absenteeism in the various sectors, government has the highest rate of absenteeism. The report says that at any one time, 33.6% of government employees are absent, compared to figures in other sectors: 21.7% for mining, 12.4% for construction, 10.7% for agriculture, 11.9% for utilities and 6% for manufacturing. One in three workers throughout all of government are absent at any one time. Is it any wonder that productivity collapses in the process?

Within government, Angie Motshekga, the Minister of Education, is particularly concerned with absenteeism of teachers. She says that 392,000 teachers are employed in public schools and the average number of days of sick leave in 2012 was 19 days off per teacher. This is, in effect, like a second substantial annual holiday every year.

The World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Report indicates that South Africa, which used to be the most competitive country on the continent, is slipping, and has recently been overtaken by much less significant countries. Although the National Development Plan is intended to drive competitiveness, there seems to be such a disappointing lack of motivation and commitment that we cannot be sure it will achieve its goals.

In a time where unemployment is a key concern, we would have thought that those fortunate people who do have jobs would be happy and fully committed to give it their best efforts. But this is not the case.

Although the vast and apparently escalating labour unrest in much of South Africa is fuelled by demands for better pay, it is not just for more money. Working conditions and benefits are also central issues. The bottom line is that there is ongoing and pervasive dissatisfaction at all levels of the economy. It is that which is robbing us of competitiveness and stirring violent action.

If it gives us any measure of comfort, South Africa is not alone in this. In a recent piece quoted by Forbes, the causes of increased absenteeism in the USA include bullying and harassment by bosses and co-workers, burnout stress and low morale, depression, disengagement and job hunting. A factor also mentioned these days is “presenteesism”; being present at work but so disengaged that there is little real productivity. Slacking off has become a game. Playing at it involves doing your own thing and playing at various games but ensuring that your boss does not catch you.

Enough with the symptoms; are there any clues in the causes? A major cause of any unhappiness is when your idea of how things should be does not match how they are. Reality does not fit with the imagined image. Depression often results from a situation where you feel unable to influence a situation; there is inflated expectation followed by dissatisfaction and disappointment.

What’s to be done? There are of course no obvious or easily accessible solutions. And it is not going to help us to hold up the perennial quest for sound leadership to get things right.

But here’s a thought. What about paying a “wellness bonus”? If we assume that people will manage their own lives and their health in a different way if there is enough incentive, why not encourage good overall health by paying an annual wellness bonus based not only on low or no absenteeism, but also on building and maintaining healthy habits like giving up smoking, regular exercise, sound weight control, limiting alcohol etc.? A point system would make an employee lose points if they didn’t manage themselves responsibly.

It would put the responsibility back with the individual, empowering them to contribute through their own healthy habits to the overall health of the business or government department they work for. It would be due to own initiative and effort. Instead of taking advantage wherever possible and slacking off, ‘getting back’ at the employer for their disagreeable circumstances, bonus points could be earned for good wellness behaviour.

Companies could issue wellness certificates and a whole system of competition could develop with high achievers given lapel pins and ‘wellness status’ in the group. People love competing.

Managers of teams could then qualify for an over-rider bonus if their people maintain good wellness performance. This would ensure that managers pay attention to the welfare and wellbeing of their people. Looking after them, it would increase the quality of leadership and improve team morale. It could also restore the country’s competitiveness in a special and unique way.

For those who are genuinely sick, they will unfortunately lose some of their wellness bonus, but they will still be motivated to get back on track as quickly as possible and to manage their recovery carefully if they know they are going to be rewarded for it.

Yes, it will require some major administration and investment, but surely it would be less effort than managing the absenteeism and re-programming the schedules and output in a regularly depleted complement of workers?

While it is possible to observe the visible signs of wellness and record days at work, it is not so easy to measure commitment or motivation. Managing one’s own job satisfaction, however, also places the responsibility with the individual instead of them expecting it to be given and managed by the employer.

Dissatisfied employees can behave like resentful teenagers objecting to the discipline of parents. Making sure that the responsibility for their own well-being lies with them could change the game.

There are other benefits. The country would spend less on healthcare. Better role modelling of a healthy life would improve parenting. Restoring some of the R19 billion the country loses through absenteeism could fund better facilities for sport and leisure and could build better schools. It would take away some of the power of those merchants of dissatisfaction, the unions.

Could it work? Could some wellness be restored into the workplace if the rewards were attractive enough? DM

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