Matthew Urwin | Mar 06, 2023

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.

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. An SHRM survey found that unplanned absences can lead to a 36.6 percent loss in productivity, and 75 percent of survey respondents believe absences have a noticeable impact on both productivity and profits. 

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 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.


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. And 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,” Matthew Call, an assistant professor in management at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, said.

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Types of Absenteeism

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


Expected and Excused 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 and Excused 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. 


Unexpected 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 cause a spike in absentee rates.

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


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, an insurance, retirement and investment company.

“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.

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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. Returning to the aforementioned SHRM study, not only do unplanned absences lead to a 36.6 percent drop in productivity, but coworkers are 29.5 percent less productive and supervisors 15.7 percent less productive when they have to cover for a missing colleague. These factors can slow down 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 wellbeing of the workforce.

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’ well-being and attitudes toward work.
  • Consider offering flexible work hours.


Provide Sufficient PTO

Given the role insufficient paid time off plays in causing absenteeism in the workplace, employers may want to 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.

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.

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