South Africa lost R3.9bn due to employees taking sick leave. Who's to blame?

According to Adcorp (Business Report Friday 11 May, "Between 2009 and 2011, a quarter of all workers took up in full, the maximum statutory allowance for sick leave, of 36 days in a three-year cycle."

My opinion is that this is not a workforce problem, but one of leadership. Employees that are not engaged and do not see value in the work they do are demotivated and less productive. I'm sure there are other influences at work here, but I'm convinced leaders have no idea how their employees really feel.

Recent research by Prof. Teresa Amabile supports this view (The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Amabile & Kramer, 201. Harvard Business Press Books)

Here's a short description:
What really sets the best managers above the rest? It's their power to build a cadre of employees who have great inner work lives-consistently positive emotions; strong motivation; and favorable perceptions of the organization, their work, and their colleagues. The worst managers undermine inner work life, often unwittingly. As Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer explain in "The Progress Principle", seemingly mundane workday events can make or break employees' inner work lives. But it's forward momentum in meaningful work-progress-that creates the best inner work lives. Through rigorous analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries provided by 238 employees in 7 companies, the authors explain how managers can foster progress and enhance inner work life every day. The book shows how to remove obstacles to progress, including meaningless tasks and toxic relationships. It also explains how to activate two forces that enable progress: (1) catalysts-events that directly facilitate project work, such as clear goals and autonomy-and (2) nourishers-interpersonal events that uplift workers, including encouragement and demonstrations of respect and collegiality. Brimming with honest examples from the companies studied, "The Progress Principle" equips aspiring and seasoned leaders alike with the insights they need to maximize their people's performance.

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Tim, thanks so much for adding this discussion.    I agree with your statement that there's a lot of factors at work here;  such as I suggest amongst others: issues like both managers and employees having other "work" or business interests, quality of health, housing and transport. 

The report also mentions poor HR management .  It's not clear whether that is meaning HR in "a department" sense.  I agree that many managers have no idea what motivates their employees - not unique to the public sector, as it's also widespread in the private sector. 

One of the problems seems to be that managers have technical skills - not human resource management skills.  Another problem is that the majority of South Africans have had no or minimal career guidance and so many are unaware of how to pursue their own interests and natural aptitudes in a "career", but rather are simply in a job that they could obtain.  So engaging them on a daily basis is difficult. 

Technical vs. HRM skills - that's an interesting point. There was an article in the Harvard Business Review last year sometime entitled "Soft Skills - the New Hard Skills" or something like that. Do South African leaders and managers lack soft skills? Having worked in SA, Europe and the Middle East, I have to say that in my experience, we're way behind Europe and beginning to fall behind the Middle East in this respect.

An interesting observation.  Leads me to wonder  - to what extent does our current skills development qualifications format include soft skills - or give emphasis to the importance of soft skills?


Hi Tim and Sylvia

First of all thank you Tim for this discussion - it is so enlightening and envigorating. Sylvia, you have hit the nail on the head. Due to the large unemployment situation in SA many employees are working at a job and have no concept of or understanding of what a career is. I conducted a skills audit recently ata caompany and pointed out to the CEO that the maajority of the employees wwere in jobs and not careers. When I questioned them on career objectives they spoke about their eductaional and self development objectives.  

The second issue is that there are far too many managers in position they should not be. They are not managers and never will be. Promotoions and managerial appointments are made simply because a position exists and anyone can fill the position particularly a friend. When we stop placing square pegs in round holes we can progress. This (in terms of Tim's other discussion) is why productivity is so low in SA and why employees are not innovative.


Job is seen as a set of roles and tasks designed to be performed by one individual for an employer (including self-employment) in return for payment or profit.

Occupation is seen as a set of jobs or specialisations whose main tasks are characterised by such a high degree of similarity that they can be grouped together for the purposes of the classification.

Career is defined as a persons course or progress through life (or a distinct portion of life). It can also pertain to an occupation or a profession that usually involves special training or formal education, and considered to be a person’s lifework. 

Hi Des,

I like your second point. I fell foul of this early in my career. I happened to be a very good advertising art director so I was promoted to creative director at the ripe old age of 28. I had no managerial skills, no support from leadership and as a consequence pretty much fell apart.

As someone with no other skills than as an art director, my career became a job - and over the years one I began to hate. Two years ago I embarked on a new career, I earn half what I did, work twice as long, but I'm also a much happier person.

There are other softer issues here that I think are hard to address... people are often in the wrong profession for their passions, there will be no ignition within if the employee is just at a job to get paid. Many people leave the school environment then go hunting for jobs, and are grateful when this occurs as it provides income (often supplementing a household that needs it) then stay even though they do not love what they are doing... then the sick leave benefits are taken simply because its mental health that is suffering. Yes there is abuse in many instances, but wow... what a world we would be living in if everyone was doing what they are good at and love... this topic has many challenges, for employees and employers alike. Yet if we were all conscious of this factor ALL of us could start making a difference...

I think I've created a monster!

Yes, to all - I think we have the core of the problem - see quote from the HRD-SA 2010-2030 strategy document.  (I'll add to Downloads section.)

"It is critical to mobilise our collective will to make credible interventions that will accelerate progress towards achieving South Africa’s development goals. The HRD-SA represents an essential intervention for promoting the country’s development agenda. The need to develop and implement a robust HRD strategy is as important today as it was at the outset of our democracy in 1994. The importance of HRD is recognised by government and shared by business, labour, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the academic sectors of South African society. It also resonates with the significance attached to HRD in the international development discourse.

The first comprehensive countrywide HRD strategy adopted by the Cabinet was launched in 2001.

The declared mission of that early strategy, called the

Human Resources Development Strategy for South Africa: A nation at work for a better life, was:

To maximise the potential of the people of South Africa, through the acquisition of knowledge and skills, to work productively and competitively in order to achieve a rising quality of life for all, and to set in place an operational plan, together with the necessary institutional arrangements, to achieve this. We have benefited from the experience gained from the implementation of the 2001 HRD Strategy for South Africa, and have carefully analysed the new priorities that have emerged since the formulation of that strategy."

This document then updates that but I think this confirms our national challenge and yes "all stakeholders" have a role. 






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