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Best Practices and Strategies for Employee Absence Management

Whether it’s for a family emergency, sick leave or an accidental sleep-in, most employees will miss work at some point. As an employer, it’s important to ensure that your human resources department plans for employee absences with absence management policies and strategies.

By implementing effective employee absence management, you can help ensure consistent employee attendance, promote employee wellness and boost the overall productivity of your business. This article addresses the most common types of employee absences and considers how to develop absence management policies and strategies to reduce absenteeism.

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What is employee absence management?

Employee absence management, also called attendance management, refers to an employer’s approach to manage and reduce employee absenteeism. An organization’s human resources department is usually tasked with identifying employee absence issues and proactively applying policies to reduce absenteeism.

Absence management policies target different factors in absenteeism. Policies may include:

  • Acceptable types of absences
  • Procedures on requesting and taking leave
  • Disciplinary action for unacceptable absences
  • Amount of sick or vacation days available
  • Lines of contact for unplanned absences
  • Procedures for returning to work

Related: Unlimited Vacation Policy: Why Employers Should Consider It

What is absenteeism?

Absenteeism refers to the frequent or habitual absence of an employee from their workplace. While many kinds of absence are acceptable and often planned, consistent and unexcused absence falls outside typical acceptable parameters. If an employee is missing over 10% of their workdays, it may be a sign that absence management policies need to be readdressed or that the individual requires additional workplace support.

Causes of absenteeism

There are many factors that can cause habitual absence. Employees may regularly miss work for underlying or less obvious reasons, such as:

  • Depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns
  • Emergency childcare
  • Low morale or workplace engagement
  • Workplace harassment
  • Burnout
  • Injuries or illnesses

Types of employee absences

Planned absences

Some absences at work can be planned, such as vacation or parental leave. Employees give prior notification of their absence and gain approval from human resources or management, allowing the workplace to pass their job responsibilities to other employees or temporary workers. These absences aren’t usually an issue for absenteeism, since employees need to gain approval for leave. Types of planned absences can include:

  • Vacation
  • Sabbaticals
  • Caregiver leave
  • Maternity or paternity leave
  • Short-term health or disability leave (for minor surgeries, procedures etc.)
  • Long-term health or disability leave (significant surgeries, procedures or other care issues that require weeks to months off from work)
  • Other obligations such as jury duty or observed religious holidays

Not all absences can be planned for. In these cases, employees don’t give prior notice or gain human resources approval. While the employee can’t give prior notice, these types of absences are unavoidable, and employers should accommodate them according to predetermined policies. Here are the types of unplanned absences you may encounter:

  • Bereavement
  • Short-term health leave (for unforeseen injuries or illnesses)
  • Personal or mental health leave
  • Emergency childcare or caregiving needs

Related: Leave of Absence for Employers: Key Thoughts for Managers

Why is absence management important?

Without absence management, absenteeism can create significant direct and indirect costs for businesses. While planned and unplanned absences are given costs that come with running a business, regular absenteeism has greater productivity and cost implications for businesses. According to the CDC, employee absences are responsible for $36.4 billion of employer losses and costs per year.

Direct costs

Absenteeism costs can be categorized as direct costs, where employers deal with direct financial consequences of employee absence. This can include immediate labor costs, such as overtime for employees covering absences, payment for temporary workers and payroll or salary costs for absent employees.

Besides labor costs, employers may also need to cover short-term disability or workers’ compensation costs. Employers may also be responsible for insurance premiums and costs.

Indirect costs

When employee absence is a regular issue, employers may have associated indirect costs. If employees fail to return from absences, employers may have excessive recruiting and training costs to replace previous employees. Absenteeism also creates additional burdens on management that have to deal with the consequences of absences as well as on employees that take on extra workload to offset otherwise lost productivity.

In many cases, productivity is lost regardless of management efforts. As such, businesses may face financial repercussions or penalties. Revenue may be lost from lack of productivity, and clients may be dissatisfied with delays or service quality.

Barriers to absence management

Despite the major costs of absenteeism, many employers don’t actively track absences. Since employees inevitably deal with illnesses, emergencies or other unavoidable causes for absences, many employers consider absences as a cost of doing business. This view always attributes absences to medical issues, placing responsibility elsewhere than in the workplace itself.

Since absence costs are often hidden, it can be difficult to measure the problem. Taking on absence management can feel overwhelming for employers and managers, especially when using outdated systems or policies. It can seem especially difficult when considering legality or privacy concerns involved in tracking absences. If absence costs are unusually high, however, it may be time for you to analyze your organizational policies and address underlying issues.

Opportunities to improve absence management

In addition to rising internal costs, external drivers such as increasing public focus on employee health, engagement and performance are pushing employers to address absence management issues. While tracking and quantifying absences can be overwhelming, there are many opportunities to improve absence management strategies that can result in workplace and productivity advantages. Some opportunities include:

  • Technology innovation for employers: New absence management tracking programs make it easier and more efficient for human resources to track, measure and optimize absences
  • Technology innovation for employees: New technologies allow employees to access benefits information and make time-off requests
  • Increased well-being awareness: Recent legislative, social and economic changes suggest a strong need for physical and emotional wellness initiatives in the workplace

Developing an absence management policy

An absence management policy outlines the procedures around planned and unplanned absences. It provides accountability for both employers and employees to ensure good attendance and fair treatment. Although developing absence management policies follow the same general steps, businesses may adapt policies to their unique needs.

Clearly define acceptable absences

Collaborate with managers or human resources members to define types of acceptable or unacceptable absences, which may look different depending on the workplace. For instance, those with physically demanding jobs may not be able to report to work while injured, but office workers who use computers may be able to work from home if their injuries are not incapacitating. When anticipating and defining types of absences, consider the current trends in your business.

From there, differentiate what qualifies as time off, a sick day, extended leave or any other type of paid versus unpaid leave.

Select absence management software

To ensure your business can effectively and efficiently manage absences, equip your human resources department with the right absence management software. Take time to research the best fit for your needs and provide training to human resources staff implementing the program as well as employees on the user-end. This helps employees stay informed about their leaves, time-off and vacation balances and other important absence information.

Set parameters and policies

Once your team has established standards and basic procedures, create a set of written policies and parameters. These policies should include procedures for requesting time off and reporting unplanned absences, and reasons for denying requested time off.

Include disciplinary policies for absences outside acceptable definitions. These policies can define how attendance violations are handled, such as with managerial action, write-ups or meetings to investigate and understand the absences further.

Absence management best practices and strategies

Although absence management has an inherently administrative quality, modern best practices integrate focus on employee health and wellness.

Encourage employee wellness

Absenteeism is often rooted in underlying causes like mental or physical health concerns. Make sure your business provides a strong employee wellness program. This can help reduce general health risks and provide advantages such as improved employee morale, workplace culture and productivity. A wellness program can include benefits such as:

  • Counseling
  • Health and fitness stipends
  • Nutritious in-house food services
  • Flexible break options
  • Workplace community activities
  • In-house exercise programs

Review absences

Understanding absences isn’t as simple as addressing absenteeism when it’s already high. Absence tracking software can help provide trend-suggesting data, which can help you identify early risks for absenteeism. If employees also have access to this software, they can track their own time off and be conscious of and accountable for excessive absences.

Return-to-work process

If employees are gone for longer periods of time, return to work interviews can help smoothly re-integrate employees into the workplace. During this interview, managers can communicate any expectations about goals or objectives as well as any relevant workplace changes.

Employees may not be ready to resume their regular hours or duties when they return to work. Make sure to ask what the business can do to support their return to work, such as temporarily reducing hours or workloads.

Flexible policies

Modern workplaces largely rejected the rigid nine-to-five schedule in favor of flexible hours or remote work options. Allowing employees to have flexible start and leave times helps them attend to personal life matters while reducing lateness or missed hours. In some cases, employees may be more productive when working remotely since they’ll be able to seamlessly attend to both work and personal tasks throughout the day.

Disciplinary actions

While disciplinary actions might be necessary to keep employees accountable, they shouldn’t be used as a way to enforce attendance. Severe disciplinary actions like write-ups or terminations should be reserved for only extreme and unresolved cases of absenteeism.

Instead, consider disciplinary actions as remedial responses to absences. Include managerial and human resource meetings in your policies for employees that are consistently absent or trending towards absenteeism. Rather than reprimanding employees, these meetings should aim to investigate any underlying issues that may be causing absences. Ensure that your business respects employee privacy concerns.


Many of these strategies and measures won’t be as impactful if they’re not adequately communicated to employees. When you create your absence management policy, ensure that employees receive written and digital copies to review. If you have many employees, it may be necessary to provide a short training program to make sure employees are informed about their absence rights, their time off benefits and absence procedures.

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