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Absenteeism and the Impact on the Bottom Line: Hand Hygiene to the Rescue!

The “Great Resignation” and COVID-related absenteeism have challenged service providers to keep the doors open with adequate numbers of staff, making each employee that much more valuable. Investing in employees to keep them healthy is vital for retaining staff while ensuring the safety of customers. Adequate staffing is essential to keep the doors open and cash flow coming. Any reduction in the number of sick days helps to ensure the financial health of the organization.

About absenteeism

People are the most valuable part of any organization. Employers are looking for ways to attract and retain staff. Pre-COVID it was free pizza and ping pong tables. Now it is childcare, mental health benefits, work from home (WFH)[i], and, when WFH is not possible, a safe, healthy workplace. Ensuring that employees know the “why” and “how” of good hygiene habits can have a positive impact on overall health. Everyone wants to stay healthy.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines absences as “instances when persons who usually work 35 or more hours per week (full time) worked less than 35 hours during the reference week for one of the following reasons: own illness, injury, or medical problems; childcare problems; other family or personal obligations; civic or military duty; and maternity or paternity leave. Excluded are situations in which work was missed due to vacation or personal days, holiday, labor dispute, and other reasons.”[ii]

By using this definition, it is possible to calculate the cost to organizations due to absenteeism. Of course, part-time employees represent a substantial portion of hospitality workers[iii], and they are absent too. Their absence is every bit as challenging as those of fulltime employees.

The cost of absenteeism prior to the COVID-19 pandemic

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the average number of sick days in the United Kingdom was between 4 to 5 days per year. Based on an average hourly rate of £14.40 (currently equivalent to approximately $19.70 USD), assuming an 8-hour day x five days per year, the direct cost to the employer is £115.20 ($157.00 USD)/day for an annual total of £576.00 ($785.00 USD)/employee.[iv] Similar figures apply in the United States.[v]

These direct costs can be calculated per individual and/or as an average throughout the organization. The numerous indirect costs of absenteeism are discussed in this article.

Absenteeism during the pandemic

It is no surprise that the number of sick days increased substantially during 2020, the first full year of the pandemic and before vaccinations were available.

In the United States, more people missed work due to illness in 2020 than in the past twenty years. This chart covers the period of January 1, 2020, through December 31, 2020, and shows the number of people calling sick each day.

Again, not surprisingly, essential workers were most likely to call in sick since they cannot work remotely and are at greater risk of exposure to the virus. Many people working in the hospitality industry are considered essential workers.

Here is an example. Hotel A employs three hundred people and each employee averages four sick days per year at an average pay rate of $100.00/day. Over the course of one year, the hotel would compensate its employees a total of $120,000.00, - not a small sum of money. If each employee takes one additional sick day during the year, the direct cost is $150,000.00.

Organizations that track their annual absenteeism rate can calculate the direct impact on its bottom line.

Do you live in one of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries? This chart shows the fluctuations in days missed from work per year per country.

Reducing absenteeism

One of the most effective ways to reduce absenteeism due to colds, the flu, and COVID-19 is an effective hand hygiene program.

Research verifies that “Providing a comprehensive, targeted, yet simple to execute hand hygiene program significantly reduced the incidence of health care claims and increased employee workplace satisfaction.”[vi] Workplaces are full of ways to transmit or share the viruses and bacteria that cause diseases.

Viruses and bacteria can survive for hours to months on inanimate surfaces such as telephones, remote controls, and doorknobs, and spread by direct touch or indirect contact such as sneezing, coughing, or shaking hands.

According to the Arbogast study, “The typical office desk harbors more than ten million bacteria, four hundred times more germs than found on a standard toilet seat. High bacterial counts have been detected on elevator buttons, office phones, water fountains, computer keyboards, and vending machine buttons; particularly high viral counts were detected on desks, computer mice, and phones, especially in cubicles.

Researchers swabbing 4800 surfaces in office buildings found “officially dirty” readings were highest on break room sink faucet handles (75% incidence of being dirty), microwave door handles (48% incidence of being dirty), computer keyboards (27% incidence of being dirty), and refrigerator door handles (26% incidence of being dirty).” Yuck!

A successful hand hygiene program requires the elements of effective leadership: Commitment at all levels of management; continuous monitoring, training, correcting, and encouraging; incentives for compliance; and an excellent training program to explain the “why” and “how” of proper hand hygiene. Tracking the results over time will demonstrate the benefits of the program including reduced sick days.

Find out more about the “Healthy Hospitality” program to set in motion your comprehensive hygiene program to reduce sick days, keeping everyone healthy.


[i] The Pandemic Is Changing Employee Benefits, Tim Allen, Harvard Business Review. April 7, 2021. [ii] [iii] [iv] Sick Days Cost Everyone Something [v] [vi] Impact of a Comprehensive Workplace Hand Hygiene Program on Employer Health Care Insurance Claims and Costs, Absenteeism, and Employee Perceptions and Practices Arbogast, James W. PhD; Moore-Schiltz, Laura PhD; Jarvis, William R. MD; Harpster-Hagen, Amanda MPH; Hughes, Jillian MA; Parker, Albert PhD

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