It’s been a few months since the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) announced and implemented its attendance bonus program, offering workers a $200-a-week bonus if they don’t take time off this summer – including sick days.

Since the spring travel season began, airports nationwide have been plagued by long lines, lengthy delays and lost luggage due, in large part, to staff shortages. According to CATSA, the new financial incentive was introduced as a way to address the airport turmoil and “ensure adequate staff resourcing at some airports during the busy travel season.” [1]

CATSA’s not the first and likely not the last organization to implement attendance incentives in an effort to reduce employee absenteeism and increase productivity. But do attendance bonuses actually work?

Before examining attendance bonuses, let’s understand absenteeism and presenteeism and how they impact the workplace.

Absenteeism is when employees are habitually or intentionally absent from work. Authorized absences like scheduled vacations and family emergencies don’t count as absenteeism.

Sometimes, absenteeism is the result of a chronic illness. But more often than not, employees don’t show up to work due to a mental illness, lack of interest in their work, bullying and harassment, burnout, and/or dependent care (i.e. childcare or eldercare). For example, if Bob is often mocking and criticizing Carrie and her performance at work, she may feel uncomfortable and call in sick. [2][3]

Employee absenteeism remains a significant problem for many organizations. When employees don’t show up, it often increases the workload for the remaining workers, which can later result in dissatisfaction and burnout among other related issues.

But showing up to work isn’t necessarily a positive thing either. In fact, there are times when employees are present but disengaged and therefore not productive. This is called presenteeism. While more difficult for organizations to quantify, presenteeism is when employees are on the job (in-person or remotely) but are distracted and not fully functioning leading to reduced productivity.

Workplaces with short staffing, increased workloads, long working hours and stigma around sick leave are more likely to have presenteeism. Fear of job loss, financial insecurity, feeling irreplaceable, guilt about overburdening coworkers, and working from home are other common causes of presenteeism. For example, John may be the most experienced worker in his department. However, even though he has the flu and finds it difficult to concentrate, he doesn’t take time off because he doesn’t feel like he has anyone who can take on his responsibilities. [2][3]

Absenteeism and presenteeism are both prevailing problems for organizations. In Canada, companies lose an estimated $16.6 billion in productivity per year due to workers who call in sick, according to a report by Sunlife.

There hasn’t been as much research into the effects of presenteeism but given the rise in depression and other health conditions around the world it’s safe to say that the impact of presenteeism on workplaces is becoming more evident. [4]

Attendance bonuses are legal in Canada and can increase job satisfaction and job loyalty if the incentive policy is structed correctly, tailored to the right work environment, meets employees’ needs and accomplishes the organization’s objectives. These incentives can also work well if combined with other assistance that help employees manage personal problems like childcare or depression, for example.

It’s important to note too that attendance bonuses that aren’t monetary such as gift cards and personal thank-you notes can be just, if not more valuable than financial incentives, in showing appreciation to employees for coming into work.

Still, despite all of this, there can be significant issues with an attendance program that employers and HR should take note of.

1. Increase in Absenteeism
There’s evidence to suggest that rather than attendance bonuses improving attendance, such incentives could increase absenteeism. In one study of 232 retail stores, introducing an attendance bonus in the workplace increased absenteeism by 45%. When asked, participants in this study stated that they began to perceive workplace absences as acceptable because bonuses were being provided for a behaviour that was once considered normal. [5]

2. Increase in Presenteeism
According to the LifeWorks’ monthly Mental Health Index, pre-pandemic, 54% of employees surveyed admitted that they went into the office feeling unwell, physically or psychologically, at least once a week.

Essentially, if perfect attendance is rewarded, that may encourage employees to come into work when they aren’t feeling well. This may not only have detrimental effects on the workplace (i.e. lack of productivity) but employees too (i.e. burnout, depression, stress etc.). [6] Today, as more workers go into physical work environments, presenteeism will pose an even greater risk to staff who may be in contact with an employee who’s at work sick.

3. May Not Work for Some Positions
Attendance bonuses first emerged in factories as a way to encourage employees to work faster and harder. It was generally easy to measure an employee’s output in those settings (i.e. count how many widgets the worker made). But nowadays, more office workers collaborate in teams on complex tasks that require creativity and teamwork. Sometimes, it’s hard to determine who exactly is helping or hindering performance and so attendance bonuses may not nix any productivity issues in this kind of work environment. [7]

4. Can Promote Discrimination
These incentives must take into account the reason for an employee’s absence (i.e. maternity leave, paternity leave, disability leave) and ensure that similarly situated employees (i.e. all employees on unpaid leave) are treated the same within the attendance bonus policy. Otherwise, an attendance bonus can be discriminatory. If, for example, similarly situated employees are treated differently (i.e. if absences based on religious grounds are not counted as an absence but absences based on disability are counted as an absence), a breach of the Human Rights Code may exist. [8]

5. Can Mask Bigger Organizational Issues
Attendance bonuses may seem like a quick fix, but they can also cover up a deeper problem within the organization. So, before implementing an attendance bonus, HR and employers must first ask themselves: why are my employees not coming to work? Maybe it has to do with a lack of elder care. Or maybe they’re working in a toxic work environment. For employees that are coming to work but are disengaged, ask yourself why aren’t my employees engaged and motivated? Starting with these questions may result in more suitable solutions to absence and productivity issues.

Bottom line: Attendance bonuses may have its place in some organizations. But thoughtful and judicious planning must happen first in order to ensure such policies don’t impact an employees’ ability to take time off for their well-being.