What Is Absenteeism in the Workplace?

Everything you need to know about unexpected absences and ways to minimize it.

Written by Dawn Kawamoto
What Is Absenteeism in the Workplace?
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Apr 09, 2024

Absenteeism is when an employee misses work on a recurring basis without giving prior notice. Different from taking scheduled time off or an occasional sick day, these absences occur when an employee is expected to be present or extend beyond a reasonable or customary amount.

What Is Absenteeism?

Absenteeism is when an employee fails to show up for work or complete their job requirements on a recurring, often unplanned and extended basis. Absenteeism is different from simply taking time off, like a vacation or a planned leave.

While absenteeism may start off as a small problem, it can quickly snowball into an issue that affects a company’s production and revenue targets. A Gallup survey found that workers who have 12 days of unplanned absences over a 12-month span can cost the U.S. economy $47.6 billion per year in terms of productivity. 

By understanding absenteeism and some of its underlying causes, companies can establish guidelines for holding workers accountable while still preserving the benefits that contribute to employees’ well-being.

 

What Is Absenteeism?

Absenteeism is defined as a physical absence from the workplace and extends beyond what most employers would consider reasonable and customary, said Deniece Maston, an HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management. That doesn’t include situations where work is missed due to vacations, personal days, holidays or labor disputes.

“It’s characterized by this kind of unexpectedness when people expect you to be there and you don’t show up,” said Matthew Call, an assistant professor in management at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.

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Types of Absenteeism

Not every absence is an instance of absenteeism, so employers typically distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable absences.
 

Planned and Approved Absences 

Absences that are expected and excused refer to when an employee knows beforehand they’ll miss work and contacts their manager — or the appropriate channels — for approval in advance. Reasons may include health appointments, vacation days, parental leave and other personal matters. 

 

Unexpected yet Acceptable Absences

Some absences are impossible to plan for, but are still perfectly reasonable and acceptable. Examples like these include sick days, mental health days, injuries, family emergencies and homecare emergencies. In these cases, employees may only be able to give short notice that they’ll be away, but managers approve their request. 

  

Unannounced and Unexcused Absences 

Absences that are unexpected and unexcused occur when an employee deliberately chooses not to show up for work and makes no effort to seek prior approval. Employees may skip work due to interpersonal work conflicts, poor time management or simply because they decided to avoid work without telling anyone. This is the type of absence in view when discussing absenteeism.

 

What Are the Causes of Absenteeism?

Many variables play a role in driving employee absenteeism. While personal matters can affect an employee’s well-being, factors related to company culture can also increase absentee rates.

Causes of Absenteeism

  • Work-related burnout and stress 
  • Illness and other emergencies
  • Not enough paid time off 
  • Mental health issues
  • Workplace harassment
  • Workplace conflicts 
  • Low employee engagement 
  • Job searching

 

Work-Related Burnout and Stress

Employee burnout is often the root cause of absenteeism. That’s especially true in virtual environments, where employees often struggle to develop a clear separation between their remote work and personal life.

“The biggest cause of absenteeism that we’re particularly seeing right now is burnout and workplace stress,” Call said. “It’s really mental health issues and overall well-being. People wake up, they don’t want to get out of bed and so they don’t go to work.”

 

Illness and Other Emergencies

Other causes of employee absenteeism range from illness, needing to tend to a sick child, parents or other family members, helping a friend move or dealing with a broken car and no transportation to work.

 

Not Enough Paid Time Off 

A lack of an adequate amount of paid time off is another cause of absenteeism in the workplace, said Debra Villar, manager of disability management resources at The Standard.

“I know back in the day parents would always save their PTO in case something happened with their children or they needed to take care of a loved one,” Villar said. “And if they didn’t have enough time off, they may be absent.”

 

Mental Health Issues

A combination of the previous factors can have a negative impact on employees’ mental health, leading them to skip work more frequently. For example, a lack of work-life balance and isolation can fuel depression among remote workers. Or not having enough PTO can lead employees to overextend themselves in both their personal and professional lives, further lowering their morale.

 

Workplace Harassment 

Employees may be singled out for their background or a specific trait and face bullying, microaggressions and other forms of harassment in the workplace. If a company doesn’t have a process for employees to report malicious behavior and hold their coworkers accountable, it could lead to a hostile work environment that discourages employees who endure discrimination from showing up for work. 

 

Workplace Conflicts

An employee may refuse to go to work if they face a conflict with a coworker or manager that goes unresolved. However, employees could feel alienated by company-wide decisions, including layoffs, departmental shifts and changes in strategy. If company leaders don’t provide spaces for employees to process major developments and express their feelings, employees may display less dedication to the organization and their work. 

 

Low Employee Engagement

Employees could experience low levels of engagement for various reasons. They may feel disconnected from coworkers in the office, frustrated with not receiving recognition for successes or disappointed in the limited number of upskilling opportunities. Whatever the scenario, depleted employee engagement levels can lead to a drop in motivation and sense of purpose, causing employees to show up less regularly. 

 

Job Searching

If an employee is ready to move on to another company, they may focus more attention on their job search instead of their current role. They may skip work without an explanation to spend time tweaking their resume, applying for jobs online and scheduling interviews with recruiters at prospective employers.

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Costs and Consequences of Absenteeism

Absenteeism may start off as an individual issue, but it can send ripple effects throughout the rest of the workforce.
 

Lost Production and Revenue 

When an employee doesn’t show up when they’re expected to, the company feels the losses in its production and profits. Each missed day of work can cost about $340 for full-time employees and $170 for part-time employees. If these days accumulate, they can deal a sizable blow to a company’s revenue streams. 

  

Widespread Employee Burnout

Each unexpected absence makes it harder for colleagues to cover for their coworkers, potentially creating a large problem where the demands of the job skyrocket for others, especially in some fields like nursing, teaching, or service delivery jobs, Call said.

Adding more work to everyone’s plates can spark the flames of employee burnout, creating more wear and tear among team members.  

 

Deteriorating Company Culture

Absentee workers may already be suffering from the company culture, but other employees may also experience lower morale if they have to keep covering work for their missing colleagues. 

 

Increased Employee Turnover

If companies fail to address any issues causing and resulting from absenteeism, employees may decide to seek other opportunities elsewhere.

 

How to Reduce Absenteeism in the Workplace

Absenteeism can become a major issue, but it’s also an avoidable one if companies take a proactive approach. Below are a few measures leadership and managers can follow to address absenteeism and ensure the well-being of the workforce.

Ways to Reduce Absenteeism

  • Re-evaluate paid time-off policies.
  • Talk with employees about what may be contributing to absences.
  • Make sure employees are aware of employee assistance programs.
  • Use surveys to get an idea of employees’ well-being and attitudes toward work.
  • Consider offering flexible work hours.

 

Provide Sufficient PTO

Employers should re-evaluate their PTO policies periodically to see if there is a need to potentially increase the number of days offered to reduce absenteeism at the company.

In addition, companies should already have healthcare benefits policies that cover things like sick days, mental health days and emergencies. If circumstances arise that aren’t explicitly explained in a company’s policies or benefits, an employee should contact their manager and work to find a resolution that satisfies both parties.

 

Reach Out to Absent Employees

If an employee is frequently absent and there’s a noticeable pattern, managers should consider having a conversation with that employee about it.

“Unless you ask those questions of the employee, you really don’t know what the context is behind the absenteeism and know what support to offer them,” Villar said. “There may be support available to them that they’re not aware of.”

Managers can also be proactive and ask employees during one-on-ones if they’ll need to take time off for the upcoming weeks or months. Maintaining an open and regular line of communication helps avoid any misunderstandings.

In the event that an absent employee doesn’t give a reasonable excuse for missing work, companies should have absence management policies that outline procedures for disciplining individuals without sacrificing collective employee benefits.

 

Direct Employees to Company Resources

If stress or other issues are causing your employee’s absenteeism, point them to your company’s employee assistance program, which offers support to workers undergoing personal or work-related problems that affect their job performance.

 

Track Employee Sentiment With Surveys 

Another way to engage employees is through the use of pulse surveys, which give an aggregated overview of the workforce’s general well-being and attitudes toward work, Call said. These surveys should be tracked over time to compare any shifts in the sentiment of workers, he added.

 

Offer Flexible Work Hours

Offering flexible work hours can also help reduce absenteeism, SHRM’s Maston said. Some employees may want to start work at 6 a.m. to end their workday in the afternoon, so they can make appointments and attend events or other activities, she added.

As long as leaders balance clear boundaries with flexibility, they can empower employees to achieve work-life balance while addressing individuals who are pushing the lines too far. 

 

Encourage Employees to Take Care of Themselves

Leadership can foster a culture in which it’s easy for employees to make healthy choices. For example, letting employees know they can skip the office if they aren’t feeling well is one way to reduce the work-related stress that often contributes to absenteeism.

“Pre-Covid, people were coming to work if they were sick. Now, I have seen managers embrace the mindset of telling people to stay home if they don’t feel well,” Maston said. 

And that, of course, can keep illnesses from running rampant in the office and provide a healthier lifestyle for employees.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Absenteeism refers to an employee consistently not showing up for work when they’re expected to over an extended period. While company policies may offer valid reasons for a long-term leave of absence, absenteeism often goes beyond the length of time considered reasonable and involves unplanned absences.

An absence is time off permitted by company policies and requires prior notice. Absenteeism refers to many absences that occur without company approval and without an employee communicating these absences ahead of time.

An example of absenteeism could be a remote employee failing to establish clear work-life boundaries and feeling drained. In response, they may start skipping workdays unannounced as a way to cope with feelings of burnout.

The types of absenteeism include absences that are expected and approved by company policy, absences that are unannounced but still accepted by company policy and absences that occur without prior notice or approval.

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