The Morale of the Story: High Levels of Absenteeism Continue at City Hall

The Senior Management Team is not doing a good enough job of connecting the dots with and for employees. As a result, we have less engaged employees who get less done, so it costs us more to do less.

By Graham Crawford
Published April 17, 2013

Recently, Councillors were updated on employee absenteeism stats and their related costs, all shared in the Employee Attendance Performance Measures Report [PDF] released to Council on March 25, 2013. The Report was discussed at a meeting of Council on March 27, 2013.

Some Councillors asked questions about the report. Chad Collins led the charge, followed by Brad Clark, Sam Merulla, Bernie Morelli and Terry Whitehead. While they acknowledged some progress had been made to reduce the average number of days absent per employee, Councillors pushed for better results, faster.

I think they were right to ask for both. Progress is indeed being made but, as seems too often to be the case, at a glacial pace.

I've selected some of the key areas of focus from the report and I've put together an infographic to help visualize the stats.

Infographic: City of Hamilton 2012 Employee Absenteeism
Infographic: City of Hamilton 2012 Employee Absenteeism

Glass More Than Half Full

There are approximately 6300 full time employees at the City of Hamilton. Of those, there are approximately 5,050 employees who are formally "eligible" to take sick days. Of the eligible employees, slightly over 75 percent (3,785+) of them took two or fewer days last year. 25 percent of eligible employees (1260+) took zero sick days.

While not surprisingly fitting nicely into the Pareto Principle of 80/20, I think this stat is worthy of both note and of praise. Basically, it means that over 75 percent of City employees have excellent attendance records.

Absenteeism is costing Hamilton taxpayers well over $12,000,000 per year. Depending on what gets added to that base number, including overtime, replacement workers, etc., that number could be, and is very likely to be, significantly higher.

Obviously, absenteeism is a fact of life. Not only do employees get sick, but so do members of their families. Kids may need to be cared for, etc. So, the goal can never be zero days off, but if 75 percent of your employees can have two or fewer, why couldn't that percentage be 80 percent? Or 85 percent? The implications are significant.

City Manager Chris Murray has set a target of a 10 percent reduction in the average number of days absent per employee over the next two years. In the last year, they have achieved an almost 5 percent reduction.

At the March 27 Council meeting, Murray told councillors:

We've already knocked it down by half a day and I think the way we phrased it was, one day or better, really, is what we're trying to achieve and certainly we're well on our way as it stands right now. And just so everyone here is aware, we have made this a priority. We are training all of our leadership, or just reminding all of our leadership, as to what the Attendance Management Program is meant to do and how best to utilize it. And I do attend every one of those sessions just to make the point that this is something that Council is very serious about, and hence I think, you know, applause, you know, hats off to staff for effort.

You can watch Joey Coleman's livestream of the meeting. Murray's remark is on the second video at around the 2:25:00 mark.

Big Costs From a Minority of Employees

What about the remaining 1265 who represent 25 percent of the total of eligible employees? Well, that's where it gets much less worthy of praise.

This group of employees took 6 or more days off last year. Again, people do get sick or injured. That's why we have sick days, as well as Short Term Disability and Long Term Disability programs. But what level is acceptable? When is high too high? And what are some of the causes of such high numbers?

65 percent of the 10,000 sick days taken in total were taken by 25 percent of the eligible employees. The 6500 sick days this group took cost the City at least $7.5 million. These numbers meant that Hamilton ranked seven out of 12 municipalities with which we share data. Average. Every year. For each of the past four years.

I'm not sure why "middle of the pack", as Chris Murray describes Hamilton's ranking, is acceptable for a city that begins its vision statement with, "To be the best place in Canada to..." The difference between #1 and #7 is many millions of dollars.

The report mentions the number of WSIB claims is up, but that the period of time away from work for each claim is down. More people away more frequently, but for fewer days at a time. But why are more people making WSIB claims? Why are they returning to work sooner? What explains this change?

The report also states:

There is significant variation among various unionized employee groups in the average paid sick days in 2012 with a low of 6.8 days for CUPE 1041 and a high of 18.4 days for ONA Lodges. The average paid sick days for all unionized staff are 11.2 days versus 4.9 days for the non-unionized workforce. Absences rose slightly in the unionized group as a whole while they declined for non-unionized staff. The reasons for the contrast between these groups is likely related to differences in how engaged employees feel with their work, access to flexible work arrangements, differences in the nature of the work and overall job satisfaction.

The authors of the report say being a unionized employee makes people feel less engaged than their non-unionized colleagues. Why would this be the case? Why would the report suggest unionized employees would have lower job satisfaction than their non-unionized colleagues? Why would this explain why they take more sick days?

Is the report concluding that the more disengaged an employee is, the more he or she experiences lower job satisfaction and, as a result, is more likely to avoid being at work?

It's correct, of course. There's not much point in debating this fact of organizational culture. But there's a great deal to be said for understanding why this is the case at the City of Hamilton.

Absenteeism is a Symptom

Absenteeism is always a symptom. It's never the problem, even though the City's senior management team seem to be treating it as the problem.

Put simply: more engaged, more satisfied, more supported employees are more productive. They tend to spend less time away from work. They do more when they're at work. Lower absenteeism (less cost) and higher productivity (more done).

This is why it's very important not to confuse attendance with productivity. People can show up because that's the way they're wired, managed, inclined. That does not necessarily mean they're working to their full capacity or potential. Yet, the report makes no mention of this correlation, other than the union/non-union comment.

Another HR report presented to Council about a year ago stated that not quite 50 percent of employees had a formal performance plan in place. You know, the plans that set out some achievable goals for the employee, set in collaboration with his or her immediate manager. Goals that should not only be connected to departmental goals, but also to the higher level organizational goals.

These plans provide focus, opportunities for learning and progress, and a sense of personal achievement. Some of the very things that help increase job satisfaction, which we know directly contributes to reducing levels of absenteeism.

But even a formal performance management process gets sub-optimized when it just mimics existing job descriptions. A really good performance management process really is driven by and connected to higher level organizational goals, regardless of the job description. That's not an easy thing to do, but it is doable. Many organizations have been doing it for decades.

Not only that, but investing the time and effort to state and communicate higher level goals for all employees, and embedding them into the performance management plan, helps to target and achieve results, organization-wide and at all levels.

Mediocrity is Not the Goal


I, for one, could do with a greater sense of urgency.

Mediocrity is not a goal to which any of us should aspire. Nor should Council or Chris Murray and his Senior Management Team. Average isn't the same as good.

Personally, I don't think even good is good enough for my city. Snail's pace progress is not keeping pace with the economic development progress we're experiencing. The entire city bureaucracy needs to be not only in sync with the economic development progress, it needs to be out in front of it.

The decision to invest in Hamilton - to move to Hamilton, to raise your kids in Hamilton, to start a business in Hamilton, to be an engaged Hamiltonian - all rely to some degree on the quality of services delivered by the City and by the people we entrust to deliver them.

As I said, there is good news to share. But not enough of it. Chris Murray and his Senior Management Team are not doing a good enough job of connecting the dots with and for employees. As a result, we have less engaged employees who get less done, so it costs us more to do less. That is neither desirable nor sustainable.

And that, sadly, is the morale of the story.

Graham Crawford was raised in Hamilton, moving to Toronto in 1980 where he spent 25 years as the owner of a successful management consulting firm that he sold in 2000. He retired and moved back to Hamilton in 2005 and became involved in heritage and neighbourhood issues. He opened Hamilton HIStory + HERitage on James North in 2007, a multi-media exhibition space (aka a storefront museum) celebrating the lives of the men and women who have helped to shape the City of Hamilton.


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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted April 17, 2013 at 16:01:35

Employee engagement seems to be a big issue for City employees, and I certainly see the need for a robust performance management regime, but I just don't get how sick days fit into this discussion. Like you said, "it's very important not to confuse attendance with productivity," and when I read that ONA lodges have the highest level of sick days, I think "Good! Nurses are the last people I want showing up to work sick, and I'd want them to err on the side of caution."

So why even focus on attendance? I understand your argument that it's the symptom, but by zeroing in on absenteeism, creating an infographic and all, I think it overstates the importance of absenteeism as a metric at all--like using GDP to infer quality of life, when GDP gains could come from anything, including treating cancer, or the product of environmental degradation.

I just get very concerned when defenders of the public purse start looking at employee benefits and entitlements as the way to close productivity gaps created by poor management, poor leadership, and poor morale. I don't see how any of those things can be solved by cracking down on front-line workers.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted April 17, 2013 at 19:19:41

@Borelli I agree with you completely. I'll assume the burden for any confusion my piece has created. Cracking down on front line employees is precisely what should NOT be done, but the SMT is doing just that by using Attendance Programs to monitor employees. I'm not suggesting that attendance shouldn't be tracked, because I believe it should be.

What I am suggesting is that the reasons for absenteeism have more to do with what it feels like to work for the City than it does about on-the-job health and safety issues, although these can be factors is some, isolated, job-specific cases of course.

I was told by a mentor over 30 years ago, as a leader (manager) motivation is not something you put in, it's something you help to let out. High levels of absenteeism are likely caused by a lack of motivation. When employees feel less engaged than they would want to, it leads to all kinds of issues, sometimes resulting in absenteeism. You are right on the money, as far as I'm concerned, when you say poor management,poor leadership, and poor morale are the real issues here.

I was responding to the latest report to Council on employee metrics. This is the current topic showcased by the City Manager. Not me. I think we need to move this whole discussion up to talk about the three things you mentioned (management, leadership, morale). While I think the costs caused by absenteeism are worth noting, i think the resolution to the issue is not by getting tough on employees. We've all heard the line before - employee beatings will continue until morale improves. Exactly my point. We need to refocus on the right things. Sorry to have created the confusion.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted April 17, 2013 at 19:29:23

This is the current topic showcased by the City Manager. Not me.

Gotcha, thanks for the clarification! Sorry, I tend to get defensive when I see front-line workers placed in the cross-hairs as easy targets for austerity (as an earlier article on RTH had done).

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By j (registered) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 00:29:19 in reply to Comment 87891

no, you get your hairs up when anyone questions 'front-line workers' in any way whatsoever. Union rep?

It's pretty simple, you hold BOTH management and labour to a rigorous standard. Public works management may have been the reason those 29 workers were dumping their loads and not working, but to protect the workers is just plain immoral.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 14:39:58 in reply to Comment 87904

Yup, Jimbo. I can't stand it when armchair economists decide to place all the failures of poor management on the folks at the bottom of the totem pole--why else do we pay management a premium than to be responsible?

Labour relations is so simple, eh Jimbo? Yet I see all the progress you've made with the city...

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted April 17, 2013 at 19:39:51

Thanks. I've never been a front-line employee basher. I hold management and leadership to a very high standard. I think we have a long way to go in that regard.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 02:00:00

There are a multitude of ailments at municipal governments of all stripes, in all cities. Institutional malaise also infects a host of other sectors, from industry to culture. Education to health care. Hamilton has suffered in parrt because many of its best and brightest have, for generations, followed the highway east in the name of career equity. Only latterly has that begun to shift. Reforming decades of atrophy will take more than beancounters -- or zeroes and ones -- to undo.

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By Steel City Rising Against Poverty (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 02:23:03

H & H writes that they hod managemen† in high esteem, and I ask why? Yes, we must be beholding to those who have led our society to believe that morals and ethis rule the norm.

Yes there are many good people, however, their voicres are suppressed and we should all be vigilant as to who is sepaking for whom/

How many in middle management have done bad things to those in poverty, because of policy? Where are the lamplighters?

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted April 18, 2013 at 12:41:00

@Steel City Rising Against Poverty - just so we're clear, I said I hold management and leadership to a high standard. I didn't say I held them in high esteem. Big difference.

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 16:46:07

This infographic consfuses me... It looks like more employees took sick days than are eligible for them... Also, it looks like no one took 3 - 5 sick days? I find that hard to believe...

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By Contagious (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 18:42:05

People get sick. Those people take sick days. That's what they're there for. That group taking only 1-2 per year are either super-immune or are coming into work when they probably shouldn't. That or, since they tend to be non-union, they likely don't have as many sick days available to them, which is a whole other problem.

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By RenaissanceWatcher (registered) | Posted April 19, 2013 at 13:42:44

Thank you for posting this commentary on municipal employee absenteeism and performance, Mr. Crawford.

There is also a side issue deserving of consideration.

The Employee Attendance Performance Measures Report does not provide any statistics on the types of illness or injury sustained by employees in and outside of the workplace. For example, do any of the 6,300 municipal employees suffer from a gambling addiction that has resulted in absenteeism or reduced work performance? If so, how are their gambling problems being treated?

City council recently unanimously passed a motion by Councillor Merulla which leaves the door open for a possible downtown casino if OLG and the casino proponents demonstrate that the Flamboro Downs site is not feasible for a casino/hotel complex. What impact would a downtown casino, located a five minute walk or drive from City Hall, have on municipal employee attendance and performance? This question was not studied by city staff nor was it addressed by city council when it considered and passed the recent casino motion. It needs to become part of the discussion before city council makes any final decision on the casino issue in the next year or two.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted April 19, 2013 at 13:44:56

@mrgrande The city's report makes no mention, specifically, of 3-5 days of sick days. Confused me too, but I cannot find any numbers related to 3-5. I went with what was in the report. Obviously, these were taken, but ...

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted April 22, 2013 at 23:11:11

So, as someone has been trained in numbers and stats, I also know the pitfalls, to this type of reproting. They lack the human story.

So for the 25% who took one to six days off, how many are battling serious health issues, or their children, or other family members. I mean we must look at many thibngs to try and analysis all things.

We have no idea the makeup of anyone, individual workers homelife, thus these figures, which are numerical, have no insight into the human factor.

As a worker, I know that policy, likes city policy to non violence, is completely useless, as bullying is rampant and when the city hires a temp company that also is part of the violation of workers rights, which creates a hostile work environment.

The working class, has to get smarter and organzie better.

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