On any given day, how much of your workforce is absent?

Nationwide, that figure stood at 3.2 percent for full-time workers who were absent last year due to illness, injury, medical problems, personal obligations, or other unexpected matters, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the highest level it’s been in more than a decade, based on BLS data, and it’s a sign of growing absenteeism.

What Is Absenteeism?

Absenteeism is when an employee is physically absent from the workplace, whether it’s in an office or remote setting. The absence is often unexpected, and extends beyond what is normally considered reasonable and customary time off.


What Is Absenteeism?

Traditionally, 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, a national HR trade association.

Workplace absenteeism, furthermore, is defined by the BLS as not including 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.”

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

And this unexpected absence makes it harder for colleagues to cover for their co-workers, 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.

It’s also costly for employers. Absenteeism costs companies $3,600 per hourly employee a year or $2,650 per salaried worker a year, according to a white paper by workforce performance and safety solutions company Circadian.

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Types of Absenteeism

There are four categories of absences, one of which is not truly considered a form of absenteeism: authorized and planned absences.

Although employees are physically gone with this form of absence, it typically is not considered a form of absenteeism by the BLS and HR experts.

Maternity and paternity leave, personal leave, holidays and vacation days would fall under this category, Maston told Built In.

The other three categories, however, usually fall under absenteeism.


Unplanned Absences

These are unplanned but genuine absences, such as illness, family emergencies or accidents, Maston said, adding that these absences are unplanned but they’re definitely reasons why people need to be away from work.


Ghosting and Work Abandonment Absences

Unauthorized absenteeism where employees do not come into work and fail to pick up their phone or respond to emails and texts from their employer give HR professionals the greatest grief when it comes to absenteeism in the workplace, said Maston, who noted she receives the most calls on this topic from employers with absenteeism-related questions.

This form of absenteeism in the workplace is known as ghosting the employer or work abandonment, even though the employee may suddenly resurface versus quitting.


Virtual Work Absences

Absenteeism in the virtual space is a new kind of absenteeism in the corporate world, said Call.

“It’s a new thing we’re dealing with and trying to understand. It’s a hard thing when people aren’t at work. Do we even know when they are absent? Or, if they’re online, they don’t say anything and then they’re gone. How do we even know if they are absent? It’s a whole new reality,” Call told Built In.


What Are the Causes of Absenteeism?

With virtual absenteeism, burnout is often the root cause because employees have yet to develop a clear separation between their remote work and personal life, finding they are closely intertwined, said experts.

“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.”

“The biggest cause of absenteeism that we’re particularly seeing right now is burnout and workplace stress. That’s really been increasing,” 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.”

Causes of Absenteeism

  • Burnout
  • Workplace stress
  • Mental health and well-being issues
  • Unexpected illness
  • Needing to care for a sick child or family member
  • Not enough paid time off

Other causes 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, he added.

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, an insurance, retirement and investment company also known as StanCorp Financial Group.

“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. And if they didn’t have enough time off, they may be absent,” Villar explained.

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How to Reduce Absenteeism in the Workplace

Given the role insufficient paid time off plays in causing absenteeism in the workplace, 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, Villar said.

Additionally, if an employee is frequently absent and you notice a pattern, managers should consider it an opportunity to have a conversation with that employee to truly understand what is going on in their life that is contributing to the absences, said Villar, who is also a licensed mental health counselor.

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

Ways to Reduce Absenteeism

  • Re-evaluate paid time-off policies.
  • Reach out to employees and have conversations about what is contributing to absences.
  • Make sure employees are aware of resources like employee assistance programs.
  • Use pulse surveys to get a general idea of employees’ wellbeing and attitudes towards work.
  • Consider offering flexible work hours.

“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.”

Other ways to tap into an employee’s state of mind and feelings are through 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.

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 said.

In addition to these steps to reduce absenteeism in the workplace, perhaps the most notable one to emerge as a result of the pandemic is a company culture where managers are taking a tougher stance in sending employees home if they are sick.

“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.

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