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Absenteeism in the Workplace: A problem that needs to be managed

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Team photo from Montreux, Switzerland

Employees need time off for many reasons: from illness to emergencies. Your team should always be encouraged to take the time they need when needed.

Absenteeism, however, is more than just the occasional sick day and can prove to be a bigger issue.

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions estimated that absenteeism can cost up to 2.5% of Europe's GDP, which works out at a huge โ‚ฌ470 billion.

But what is absenteeism, what are the primary causes and more importantly, how can it be tackled effectively?

We look into all of that and more and share strategies to help you curb the issue.

What is absenteeism?

Absenteeism meaning

Absenteeism definition

Absenteeism is regular, unscheduled absences from work, usually without a valid reason.

It can be costly, burden organisations with unplanned costs, and puts stress your workforce as it slows down processes and puts additional pressure on team members.

However, not all absenteeism is the same.

There are two types of absenteeism: innocent and culpable.

Innocent absenteeism is when employees miss work due to illness, injury, or other out-of-control factors, such as family emergencies.

Culpable absenteeism is when an employee intentionally avoids work without a valid reason. This is the type of absence that can harm company culture and is often subject to disciplinary proceedings.

Common reasons for innocent employee absenteeism

Here are some of the most common reasons for innocent employee absenteeism:

  1. Illness: Both physical illnesses like the flu or a cold, and mental health issues including stress, anxiety, burnout or depression.
  2. Family responsibilities: Caring for an ill family member, attending to a family crisis, or dropping off and picking up kids from school.
  3. Personal need: Personal time off, bereavement leave, or appointments that can't be scheduled outside work hours all fall under this category.

Not all absence is negative, especially when it's for genuine reasons. Try to have a clear understanding of the reasons behind each absence and develop supportive policies to reduce unnecessary absenteeism. By doing this, you let employees know exactly where they stand.

What is chronic absenteeism?

Chronic absenteeism is when an employee consistently doesn't show up for work without a valid excuse.

It's a form of serious misconduct that affects not only job performance and output levels but also the morale, efficiency and cohesion of the team.

It can lead to more serious issues within the workforce as well as the ones who continue to pick up the workload of the absent employee can become frustrated. The increase in their additional workload can also lead to burnout and stress within your team and can contribute to more increases in absenteeism. It's important to nip it in the bud before it becomes a constant cycle.

Causes of absenteeism

Absenteeism isn't just about skiving work to do something else. There can be many reasons why an employee might be frequently absent, from feeling unwell to fulfilling jury duty, most reasons are usually valid. However, chronic absenteeism can point to a deeper issue, such as a lack of engagement, dissatisfying work conditions, or a difficult organisational culture.

Don't ignore chronic absenteeism. Take the time to look into what is causing the absenteeism and spend some time researching how to implement measures to assist with it. We've got some examples below if you're not sure where to start.

If a lack of engagement is the issue, look into learning opportunities for employees or research and implement different work models to refresh traditional ways of working.

If the cause of absenteeism is due to conflict or a challenging organisational culture, spend time training managers on how to handle conflict and develop policies on reporting any work-related issues to ensure they can be dealt with effectively.

The impact of excessive absenteeism

On productivity and operations

When employees continually miss work, it impacts overall team performance. Absenteeism can disrupt workflow, as tasks can be delayed or left incomplete due to an absent employee's integral role.

For example, if a team member who is in charge of quality control in a production line has lots of unauthorised absences, it can lead to quality lapses, postponed shipments, and ultimately, disgruntled customers. All things we want to avoid.

On workplace morale and culture

A culture of chronic absenteeism can cause low morale and job dissatisfaction within the rest of the team. Constantly picking up the slack for absent teammates can lead to resentment and stress amongst the remaining employees and can create a demoralised work environment.

It's not about one isolated absent day. It's about an ongoing pattern that affects team camaraderie.

For example, if a valued team member with specialised skills is frequently absent, others may be left to grapple with tasks that are unfamiliar. The ripple effect across the morale and culture of the workplace can be detrimental.

Financial implications for businesses

Absenteeism also comes with financial implications.

If for example, a company needs to hire temporary workers or pay overtime to existing staff to cover frequent, unplanned absences, this additional cost can whittle away profit margins.

The cost of absenteeism on the economy

Absenteeism isn't just an issue for businesses; it presents an economic challenge as well.

When scaled up across businesses and industries nationwide, the accumulated impact of absenteeism on lost productivity and operational inefficiencies can, and does, affect national economic output.

While sick days are always encouraged when needed, it's the consistent sick days that are leading to this statistic.

Causes of workplace absenteeism

Health-related issues

Chronic illnesses or acute health conditions often force employees to miss work. Diseases such as cardiovascular ailments, diabetes, and severe mental health conditions can increase an employee's absent days.

The British Heart Foundation provides helpful information on the impact of cardiovascular diseases on absenteeism. The strain from challenging working conditions can lead to physical and mental fatigue, resulting in time employees need to take off. Make sure you're doing everything you can to create a safe working environment for your employees.

Workplace environment factors

The environment that your team are in can also impact and influence attendance. This is something that you can control.

Uncomfortable physical conditions, unsafe environments, and a hostile atmosphere can discourage employees from coming into the office.

Whereas a supportive, friendly, and healthy work environment reduces it. Creating an opportunity for employees to connect and build friendships is a great way to encourage attendance and diminish absenteeism.

One way to do that is to plan a company retreat! Nothing brings a team together like a week in an interesting location, getting to know each other and participating in team-building activities.

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Personal and family commitments

Juggling personal and professional responsibilities can be tough. Oftentimes employees will need to take unavoidable absences to care for a family member, pick up children from childcare or go to school related activities.

These absences can sometimes become frequent if the employee does not have an adequate support system at home. Make sure managers are aware of this and create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing the things they're struggling with.

Job satisfaction and engagement

Employees generally tend to be more engaged and less likely to miss work if they enjoy their jobs. On the other hand, employees who feel undervalued or overworked may resort to absenteeism as a form of silent protest.

Understanding the causes of absenteeism is crucial to be able to effectively manage it. Recognising and addressing these factors can support with decreasing employee absenteeism rates.

The absenteeism formula

Absenteeism rate explained

The absenteeism rate formula is the percentage of worker days lost due to absences against the total number of working days in a specified period.

It's a measure that employers use to assess the rate of absenteeism in their organisation. A higher absenteeism rate often indicates a disruption in productivity and the implications that follow.

How to calculate your absenteeism rate

You can calculate your rate using this absenteeism formula:

For example, if you've recorded 125 absences among your organisation of 150 employees over the past month (which on average is 22 working days), your calculation would look like this:

125 (number of culpable absence days) รท (150 (total employees) x 22 (work days)) x 100 = 3.79%

Using this method calculates the absenteeism rate for unplanned leave, such as sick leave and casual leave, but excludes planned leave like holidays.

What is a good absenteeism rate?

Understanding 'good' from 'bad' absenteeism rates often comes under question.

Maintaining an absenteeism rate of zero is both unrealistic and against promoting a healthy work-life balance. It's crucial for employees to take time off when needed.

Despite this, companies usually aim for absenteeism rates of approximately 1.5%. However, during epidemic seasons like flu or COVID, an increase in this rate can be expected.

The nature of absenteeism also plays a role in defining a 'good' rate. For instance, illness-related absenteeism is typically unavoidable, as everyone can fall ill. Distinguishing illness-related absences from other causes helps to understand whether your organisation's absence rate is normal or is hinting at underlying issues.

Strategies to manage and reduce absenteeism

Because of its effect on productivity and team cohesion, managing and reducing absenteeism in the workplace is essential. We have some tips below to help you do just that.

How to reduce absenteeism

The bottom line for reducing absenteeism is understanding employees' needs and creating an environment where they feel valued and safe. You can do this by building a supportive workplace culture and offering flexibility. Promote open dialogue for employees to voice their concerns and provide a safe space for them to do so. Additionally, offering rewards for good attendance can serve as an incentive and can, in turn, decrease instances of unnecessary absences.

One way we've seen this work is with incentive work trips to reward top performers. This doesn't have to be for reaching targets alone but can reward employees for other aspects as well, such as attendance or dedication.

Developing comprehensive attendance policies

Another way to reduce absenteeism is by developing comprehensive attendance policies. These policies enforce standards for attendance and provide clear guidelines on topics such as sick leave, tardiness, unexcused absences, and the consequences of non-compliance.

As you draft your attendance policies, remember to comply with employment laws and ensure they're fair and respectful of your employees' rights. The UK Government provides a variety of resources on this topic.

Implementing wellness and support programmes

Wellness programmes concentrate on promoting a healthy lifestyle for employees, which can reduce sick-related absenteeism. Encouraging programmes for physical health, mental health, and nutrition grants employees the tools needed for better health management.

Likewise, offering an Employee Assistance Programme(EAP) can provide counselling and support for staff members dealing with personal issues that may contribute to absenteeism.

Flexible work arrangements

To accommodate personal obligations and health-related difficulties, flexible work arrangements are something to consider. They show employees that their well-being is valued, which promotes job satisfaction and reduces the chance of absenteeism.

There are many work schedules that are gaining popularity recently. The 9-day fortnight and compressed working hours are a great way to increase engagement and boost productivity. They both offer to switch up the traditional 9 to 5 and can offer employees flexibility around their working schedules.

Evaluating the effectiveness of absenteeism policies

Understanding and managing absenteeism in your workplace doesn't stop at policy creation. It's about continuous monitoring, evaluation, and refinement. This involves identifying trends, taking on board team feedback, and making necessary adjustments.

Monitoring trends and patterns

Don't underestimate the importance of tracking patterns in absenteeism. Tools like attendance management software can help with this, providing precise and detailed data. Looking out for sudden changes, significant absenteeism spikes, or regular employee absences on certain days can give insights into potential issues. Regular analyses of this data provide a clearer picture: monthly, quarterly, or yearly assessments are recommended to observe the trends over time.

Employee feedback and policy adjustments

Absence policies aren't set in stone. They should evolve over time to better support your team. Empower your employees by asking for their comments and feedback on existing practices. Anonymous surveys or face-to-face discussions can help you gain valuable insights. Regularly revisiting your policies ensures they remain relevant and effective.

Bear in mind, that balancing policy adjustments, while maintaining organisational discipline, can be challenging but is also crucial in tackling chronic absenteeism.


Chronic absenteeism is a complex issue, influenced by factors ranging from personal health to job satisfaction. You've seen how vital it is to monitor your own workplace's absenteeism rate, using it to identify trends and implement effective strategies.

You should now understand that creating a supportive workplace culture, developing robust attendance policies, and offering flexible work arrangements can all contribute to reducing absenteeism.

Remember, the key is to evaluate and evolve your absenteeism policies, always keeping an ear to the ground for employee feedback. You know your team better than anyone so make sure your policies are relevant and well-suited to them.

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