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Most employers strive to build an engaged workplace of happy, productive employees.

But as they inevitably learn, simply getting staff to show up for work on time—or at all—can be the difference between building a business growing in overdrive or one perpetually stuck in neutral. I’ve worked with countless small-to-medium-sized companies that faced ongoing challenges with workplace absenteeism, most of whom resorted to tactics, ranging from threats to unreasonable accommodations, to get their people to show up to work reliably. Some succeeded, but a great number failed to improve chronic attendance and punctuality problems.

The reason: few took a proactive approach to designing sound workplace policies that also focused on engagement-building initiatives to encourage people to want to come to work in the first place. In many cases, the promise of a paycheque alone isn’t enough to lure people into the office.

Of course, these employers aren’t alone in their efforts to control employee absenteeism, a growing problem across the country.

Statistics Canada data shows that the number of full-time employees who missed work for all or part of a week for personal reasons jumped to 8.1% in 2011 from 7% a decade earlier, or a total of 9.3 days per year, up from 8.5 days. While costs for absenteeism vary by company and sector, the Conference Board of Canada estimates that missed work hours cost Canadian businesses a whopping $7.4 billion in lost wages each year.

In many cases, absenteeism and tardiness are surefire signs of disengagement, not to mention lost productivity and a driver of costly employee turnover. They’re also typically detrimental to a company’s culture—it’s fair to say that no employee enjoys picking up the slack for a colleague who can’t be bothered to come to work. Although there’s no magic bullet for curbing absenteeism, here are five ways to design and enforce lawful policies that maximize productivity, minimize missed days and build a culture of accountability in which staff actually want to show up for work:

Take a customized approach: As I’ve written in this column before, the first step to avoiding HR law problems is to prepare and enforce proactive policies, in this case covering issues of absenteeism, attendance, vacation and sick-day allotments. But the engagement-building art of designing smart policies is to ensure they make sense for your business and workplace culture. Allowing flex-time might work for your particular business, for example, as would providing a block of vacation or personal days that include annual sick leave which employees can use as they please, ill or not. On the other hand, yours might be the sort of company that needs stricter control over employees’ time. Whatever the case, make sure to always think culture and business requirements first, then design an absenteeism policy that supports the work environment you want to build and maintain long term.

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