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Absenteeism in the Workplace: Causes, Impacts and How to Address It


Frequent absenteeism is a sign that your organization needs change. Learn more about absenteeism to help address the problem.

Your employees must occasionally take care of other obligations during work hours, and absences are an expected part of the workplace. When frequent absences become absenteeism, they can negatively affect other employees, management and your business’s bottom line, and reports show that excessive absences cost U.S. employers billions of dollars each year.

Absenteeism in the workplace can be a sign that you need to make changes within your organization. In this article, we’ll discuss the definition of absenteeism, causes and costs and how to manage absenteeism.

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What is absenteeism in the workplace?

Absences are an expected part of the workplace, so how can you define absenteeism? Absenteeism refers to an employee’s regular absence from their job. To cross the line from normal absence into absenteeism, habitually unexcused or unaccounted absences extend beyond the acceptable amount of days away from the workplace, such as for vacation, personal time and illness.

Although you should anticipate occasional absences from your employees, absenteeism can be an issue if employees are taking advantage of company policies or enforcement and shirking responsibilities during busy or high-pressure periods.

Types of absences

There are many reasons for your employees to miss work, many of which don’t need to be treated as absenteeism. The main types of absences are:

  • Approved absences: Employees request and get permission for absences, such as for holidays, parental leave, medical leave or jury duty
  • Occasional employee absences: Unplanned absences where employees must attend to unexpected obligations, including illness, bereavement and childcare
  • Virtual absenteeism: Employees appear online and active but aren’t actually present or performing work duties
  • Chronic absenteeism: Intentional or habitual absence without employer permission

What causes absenteeism?

Absenteeism generally isn’t as simple as an unwillingness to work and often implies underlying issues. Some causes of absenteeism include:

  • Mental health: Depression is a leading cause of absenteeism in the United States, with absence rates of 6% for men and 17.3% for women
  • Childcare or eldercare: Employees may miss work due to childcare or eldercare needs when other arrangements unexpectedly cancel or if the family member has an unexpected illness
  • Injuries: Acute and chronic injuries resulting from accidents at work or elsewhere can cause absenteeism, with 35.4% of interviewed subjects reporting injury-related absences
  • Health issues: Illness or medical appointments are common reasons for missing work, especially during cold and flu season
  • Job hunting: Employees may miss work to attend job interviews, apply for jobs or work on their resumes
  • Low morale: Feelings of being underappreciated or undervalued, heavy workloads and high pressure environments can lead to burnout, stress and low morale and cause employees to miss work
  • Disengagement: If employees don’t feel connected to their jobs or engaged with your company’s mission, they may lack motivation to attend work or perform tasks
  • Harassment: Unchecked bullying and harassment can cause employees to avoid their workplace

Related:How to Motivate Your Employees

The impacts of absenteeism

Absenteeism can affect your business’s efficiency, productivity and productivity. Although the costs of absenteeism vary by industry, employers pay approximately $3,600 per year for each hourly worker and $2,650 per year for each salaried worker. Indirect costs also hurt overall profitability, with productivity losses linked to $225.8 billion annually in the United States.

Direct costs

The direct costs of absenteeism include:

  • Salary or wages paid to absent employees
  • Overtime costs for employees who fill in for others’ absences
  • Higher wages for freelancers or contractors to complete missed work
  • Reduced pay for employees if they don’t receive sick pay
  • Decreased revenue if employees don’t meet performance targets
  • Administrative costs to manage absences

Indirect costs

Indirect costs vary across departments, businesses and industries. They include:

  • Additional management costs as managers neglect other duties to find replacement employees
  • Penalties or lost revenue due to product delays or unsatisfactory service to customers
  • Customer complaints and damaged reputation due to substandard service
  • Replacement costs for hiring and training new employees
  • Decreased morale and heightened stress for individuals and teams who feel pressure and heavier workloads
  • Reduced productivity when replacement employees perform work they may not be qualified for

Related: How to Reduce Employee Turnover

Policies to prevent absenteeism in the workplace

Introducing or refining policies into your workplace can help to reduce unnecessary absences and lead to healthier and more satisfied employees.

Related: HR Policies: How They Can Influence Employee Attitude and Performance

Establish an employee attendance policy

An attendance policy is a set of guidelines and expectations relating to employee attendance. Many employees miss work or aren’t held accountable for absences due to a lack of attendance policy.

Review your current attendance policy or create a new one and include details on matters such as:

  • Planned absences
  • Unscheduled absences
  • Tardiness
  • Break times
  • Missing work without notifying management
  • Sick leave allowances
  • Holiday leave
  • Unpaid or other types of leave
  • Disciplinary action
  • Attendance policy exceptions

Related: Company Policies: 6 Policies to Consider for Your Business

Address unscheduled absences

If you notice unscheduled or repeated absences, address it early before it escalates to absenteeism. Checking in with employees helps to communicate attendance expectations and gives you the opportunity to make sure your employees aren’t struggling with underlying issues.

Disciplinary action isn’t always necessary, but it may be required if absences become habitual and affect individual or organizational work performance.

Implement a wellness program

Employees with high work and life demands may neglect their health and wellness, leading to increased incidence of absence-causing injuries, illness and mental health issues. Employer wellness programs and initiatives are correlated with reduced health care costs and reduced absenteeism costs up to $2.73 for every $1 spent. These initiatives also improve overall healthy behavior, morale and productivity.

Wellness initiatives can provide employees with fitness or nutrition services as well as access to mental health services or other health care needs.

Get employee feedback

Getting feedback directly from employees is an effective way of finding root causes of absenteeism. In addition to understanding asking employees about why they may be missing work, giving employees a voice helps them feel heard and validated by management and can boost morale.

Speak to employees one-on-one, host meetings to discuss improvements or changes employees want in the workplace or distribute anonymous surveys about absences and work conditions.

Offer flexible schedules

As the typical 9-to-5 is seen as restrictive and unnecessary, many workplaces are transitioning to remote or flexible work arrangements and enjoying benefits such as increased employee productivity and reduced absences.

Flexible schedules allow employees to perform work duties and generally avoid schedule conflicts with other life obligations, such as childcare or medical appointments. Employees who struggle with commuting costs or who experience health benefits from working remotely may also show improved attendance.

Related: 11 Tips to Effectively Manage Remote Employees

Absenteeism FAQs

Here are answers to common questions about absenteeism:

What is excessive absenteeism?

Rates of absenteeism vary by job and industry. Using a spreadsheet to track your employees’ unplanned absence can help you notice spikes in missed workdays. Use a spreadsheet with dates and a space to write presence or absence. For each absence, note the reason in the appropriate cell.

After several months of attendance tracking, review and count the number of unplanned absences for each employee and sort employees from highest to lowest. Calculate your company average and determine which employees have incurred more missed days.

What is an acceptable absence rate?

Absence rates vary across occupations and industry, but the average absence rate is 3.2%. Service occupations including healthcare workers and food preparation workers show the highest rates at 4.5%. Less than 2% is generally considered an acceptable absence rate, and rates at 10% or higher should be addressed.

How do you measure absenteeism?

To measure absenteeism for a single employee:

1. Divide the number of unexcused absences in a given period by the number of work days for that total period

2. Multiply the result by 100 to get the percentage of absenteeism

For example, an employee is absent for three workdays in one month. The number of working days in that month is 21.

1. Divide the number of unexcused absences by the total work days for the period

3/21 = 0.1428

2. Multiply that number by 100

0.1428 x 100 = 14.28%

How many sick days is normal?

Employees in private industry receive an average of 7 days of paid sick leave per year for 10 or fewer years of service.

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