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Absenteeism and the Active Schedule: Unscheduled Absences

On January 12, 2023

Public safety scheduling, while one of the most critical parts of agency operations, is also one of the most common challenges. Especially with so many in the industry affected by understaffing, absenteeism is inevitable. The question then becomes: Is your schedule able to support scheduled and unscheduled absences? This article addresses common challenges and some solutions when it comes to unscheduled absences.


Your agency’s ability to support unscheduled absenteeism is what will affect your operations in the event of sick leave, FMLA, and other unexpected events. These are inherently not possible to completely plan for the specific scenario, but it’s possible and important to plan for your readiness to respond if and when it does become necessary.


The challenges

Although it can be challenging in the short-term, it’s important for agencies to acknowledge when your schedule is pushing people to take advantage of sick leave just to get a day off because they know they otherwise won’t. This can apply to vacation or just to burnout, but if your policies are too strict and don’t let people plan vacations (which would make your scheduling easier), then they will use sick time which will be more of a challenge for your scheduling in the end anyway. In the long–term, this will benefit the employees and employer alike, and it’s all too often a culprit that is neglected.


We discuss it in more detail in the first part of this blog, which you can read here, but understanding how  many true working hours are available to your agency is also often a significant challenge. One full-time employee does not equal 100% full-time hours because there will always be vacation time, sick time, training, and other exceptions which can exacerbate understaffing until properly accounted for and addressed. FMLA can be a variable which the only real solution is to plan for it and be realistic about what will be necessary.


The solutions

Optimize the schedule to work with employee needs rather than against them, and be willing to evaluate policies, procedures, or other forms of red tape that can often cause more hardship for the employees and the managers. Additionally, there are two types of solutions that can help your agency support absenteeism: solutions which reduce it, and solutions which improve your ability to respond to it.


For example, shift trades are a powerful way to help reduce absenteeism. If you don’t have a policy that allows for shift trades, that could be a significant opportunity to benefit both the employees and the organization. Employees can get more time off when needed, such as extending vacation or weekends, by making strategic trades for their personal needs which also result in less overtime usage, more flexibility, and improved morale. Essentially, employees are working more hours on their own terms in exchange for working less hours that is also on their own terms. This can be a greater challenge with a small group of people, but also allow more room for flexible policies, whereas larger agencies may need stricter rules but have an easier time finding someone who is willing.


On the other hand, evaluating the needs of each shift, such as sick time usage, can help you respond to absenteeism. Some shifts may invite more sick time usage. For example, night shift can be more prone to sick time than day shift. This can be either physiological due to the fact disrupted sleep schedules are more likely to result in genuine illness, or it can be practical because difficult shifts are more likely for someone to just not want to come in. Identifying and acknowledging that this is happening can help you make more educated decisions when it comes to finding coverage rather than constantly being caught off guard. One possible solution is a ‘power shift’, for example, rather than 0600-1800, try 1200-0000. In effect, you can boost your ability to cover during busiest times so you don’t need to fill an entire shift if you receive a sick call. You can hold your power shift employee through the busy hours and then let them go when things slow down. 


Additionally, an automated scheduling solution can help manage absenteeism and help reduce it. There’s a few reasons for this, including:

  • An automated solution can reduce the hours you spend scheduling by more than half, this means those hours become available again for agency use, which is effectively gaining additional headcount.
  • An automated solution can support the process of trades, while making sure every action is compliant with your unique rules, policies, procedures, while also remaining auditable.
  • An automated solution can give managers deeper insights and analytics on their operations, allowing them to make data-driven decisions with information that wouldn't otherwise be available.




This is advanced and requires a time investment, but it is very possible to evaluate using data where your problem areas are – rather than feeling people ‘always call in sick’, you can definitively assess people ‘are more likely to call in sick for X shift’ and respond. While an automated solution will expedite that process, it can be done in any environment by anyone who is willing and able to perform the exercise in the short-term in order to generate long-term results.

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