Absenteeism in the Workplace


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Excessive unauthorized absence can cost employers dearly, but there are a few potential solutions that could be effective.

Article 7 Minutes
Absenteeism in the Workplace

Every employer must accept the fact that members of a workforce will all need time off at some point. Whether it's through illness or bereavement, annual leave or childcare emergencies, even the most diligent employee can’t always achieve 100% attendance.

However, when that time off starts to become excessive to the point that it's affecting the business, bosses can find themselves with a major headache.

What is absenteeism?

Absenteeism is defined as absence from work extending beyond what might be considered reasonable, according to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and it can be a major issue worldwide for firms trying to maintain productivity and keep costs low.

So how can you spot absenteeism before it starts to be a problem? What might be the costs if you don't? And, most importantly, what can be done about it?

The types of absenteeism

There are several types of workplace absence, some of which are unavoidable

  • Authorized and planned-for time off: This can include vacations, parental leave and scheduled medical appointments.
  • Unplanned but legitimate absence: Examples of this may include the hours employees cannot work when they have an accident, for example, or they or their children are sick. Although they can’t foresee this, they still have a good reason for being out of the office.
  • Unplanned and unauthorized absence: This is where absenteeism can creep in as employees simply decide they cannot (or will not) go into work on a given day. This can be frustrating for bosses even in isolated cases, but it’s when it keeps happening with the same members of staff that employers might have to consider that it needs addressing.

Absenteeism isn't just entire days off, either. It can include lateness and the taking of extended breaks, all of which eat into the hours employees are available to work.

To measure attendance in instances where you think absenteeism is a problem for a particular employee, take their total number of absence days or hours and divide them by the total time of work available, then multiply it by 100. This will provide their percentage of time lost, which can be converted into hours.

As a general rule, 1.5% or less is considered normal, but anything above that will probably need further investigation to see what the underlying causes could be.

What causes absenteeism?

There are in fact a range of factors that can cause absenteeism, such as:

  1. Illness: According to a survey by UK company instantprint, the average number of sick days during 2020 was four out of a possible 256. This can increase with chronic illness, but it would still fall under the 'authorized' category as long as workers are genuine and not just 'pulling a sickie'.
  2. Disengagement: Estimates quoted by Forbes suggest anywhere between 43% and 53% of any workforce is bored, with half of staff not working as hard as they could for at least ten hours a week. This could lead to temptation not to go to work.
  3. Burnout: At the other end of the scale is overwork leading to employees not wanting to go to the office. According to a survey of US and Canadian adults from 1Password, 80% of office workers feel burnt out, with 5% of them admitting they have been doing the bare minimum as a result. Coupled with this is the particular effects of the pandemic on work, with a new study finding Zoom fatigue can be a contributing factor to burnout.
  4. Harassment: If employees are experiencing problems with other members of staff, they could look for excuses not to come to work.
  5. Work-related injuries: By far the leading cause of these is musculoskeletal disorders, which can be exacerbated by fixed body positions and repetitive movements. According to a UK Labour Force Survey, 8.9 million working days (18.4 per case) were lost as a result of them in 2019/20.
  6. Family issues: This can include anything from the breakdown of marriages to the juggling of childcare among two working parents, for example.
  7. Stress and depression. Mental health problems are a major contributor to absenteeism, with the American Institute of Stress reporting that 83% of US workers suffer from job-related stress and a million miss work every day as a result of it.

What are the costs of absenteeism for businesses?

The costs of absenteeism can be staggering, particularly for smaller businesses. According to Circadian, unscheduled absenteeism costs around $2,660 each year for salaried employees, with Westfield Health finding the costs for mental health-related absences in particular are rising.

Depression alone is estimated to lead to $51 billion in absenteeism costs, while Dynamic Signal found 3% of workers are ready to quit their jobs due to stress.

Even simple disengagement can affect companies as employees slow down their work rate and their co-workers struggle to pick up the slack, which can in turn lead to issues with quality control as mistakes are made.

Another knock-on effect may be presenteeism in the remaining staff, who could feel they must work longer hours to make up the shortfall. This may cause a decline in morale across the whole company and - ironically - a rise in absenteeism among them, too, as they experience burnout.

And that's not to mention the administrative costs of absenteeism, which include arranging payment for time off and organizing replacement employees.

What can HR managers do to combat absenteeism?

Fortunately, there are a few measures that can be taken to make absenteeism less likely and ensure employees remain engaged with the company. Here are some of the potential solutions to the main causes of absenteeism.

Beating burnout

Feeling overworked is clearly an increasingly common problem, so ensuring there are sufficient members of staff to share the workload should be a priority for employers, even if that requires temporary hiring during busy periods.

In addition, promoting a vacation-friendly culture is key so employees don't feel the pull of presenteeism. If people take all their vacation days, they might not be absent further down the line due to stress.

Linked to this is the potential for staff to work from home if it’s appropriate for them to do so, as flexibility can contribute to a better work-life balance. According to XpertHR, the number of employees calling in sick dropped significantly during the height of the pandemic when WFH was the norm, suggesting it could continue to be a beneficial perk.

Creating a safe workplace

If high numbers of staff are taking time off due to musculoskeletal disorders, it may suggest more needs to be done to ensure they have ergonomically-designed workspaces. Meanwhile, talking to frequently absent employees could reveal episodes of harassment that need to be addressed. Discussion is vital when it comes to ensuring a safe working environment, whether that is physical or emotional.

Combating boredom and disengagement

Going back to those figures published by Forbes, if a high proportion of the workforce is bored, consider offering them incentives not to be. For example, they could win performance-related gift cards, or extra vacation days with a certain percentage of attendance.

Hiring better managers, creating more challenging targets and fostering collegiate-like community spirit in the office through quizzes or movie nights could be other good ways of ensuring employees feel valued enough not to mentally check out.

Finally, time and attendance software to track extreme cases may be a last-resort idea to ensure staff who are taking liberties can be held accountable.

However, hopefully this won't be necessary and you can use the advice above to ensure your workforce is happy, healthy and productive enough not to need excessive time off - which should give you more time to focus on your business.

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