Workplace: Employee absenteeism is just a sign and you can’t just ask staff if they’re happy, says this professor. But he does have some other questions bosses can try.
Staff missing work drags Luxembourg’s economy down by between €400m and €450m per year, plus an additional €250m to €300m burden on the national health system, says Marcus B. Müller. He is a management professor at Sacred Heart University’s Luxembourg campus. And he says employee absenteeism is merely a symptom of the wider problem of employee engagement--or rather, lack of it--which Müller hopes to help change.
Only 13% of the world’s workforce is “engaged” with their jobs, that is to say “emotionally invested in and focused on creating value for their organisations every day,” according to Gallup, a big international pollster. Denmark (21%) and the UK (17%) were among the countries on the higher end of this scale in Europe. At the same time, 26% of workers in France and in the UK were “actively disengaged” from their jobs (the Grand Duchy was not one of the 19 European countries covered by Gallup.)
Müller estimates that in Luxembourg low employee engagement adds up to roughly €1.5bn in lost productivity for firms. Adding in those absenteeism costs brings the total to around €2bn, “around 20%, 18% to be exact, of Luxembourg government gross debt.”
How ya feel?
The root cause? “Feelings”, reckons the professor, a Saarland native who worked in finance in Germany and the UK and then for an Australian university before joining SHU two years ago. But emotions are hard to quantify. “You can benchmark costs but you cannot benchmark people’s feelings.” How content or stressed are employees at competitive firms and in other sectors? It turns out there have been limited tools for bosses to see how their outfits stack up.
So the first six months of this year Müller and colleagues ran a scientific study (that could ultimately be published in an academic journal) on more than 3,000 participants in Australia, Canada, Luxembourg, the UK and US. To effectively measure employee feelings, “you cannot ask, ‘how happy are you?’” or ask workers how many days they were absent due to low moral. So the study asked staff to take detailed surveys, and then employers provided, via a confidential code, data on how many days and many times employees were absent over a 12 month period.
“The project is specifically designed to investigate drivers of absenteeism and engagement.” But he also wanted to give managers some practical tools to use the research. So he created “the first terminology that people can use to communicate, a language, so to speak,” to ensure mutual understanding. He wants workers to measure their “mental vitamins” A, B and C. The code words may just be “packaging”, he says, but “I can tell it works.”
While the scientific study has closed, the researchers have launched a website, where “people can check out the basic principles and collect the standard feedback on their ‘ABC mental vitamins’ after filling out a free questionnaire.”
Why try to shake things up now? “We have high wages in this country, so we need people who are creative and innovative and not only ‘do what I’m told’,” says Müller. Perhaps, with its small, open economy, “that is more important in this country” than elsewhere.