Absenteeism is an employee's intentional or habitual absence from work. While employers expect workers to miss a certain number of workdays each year, excessive absences can equate to decreased productivity and can have a major effect on company finances, morale and other factors. This article looks at the causes of absenteeism, the costs of lost productivity and what employers can do to reduce absenteeism rates in the workplace.

Causes of Absenteeism
People miss work for a variety of reasons, many of which are legitimate and others less so. Some of the common causes of absenteeism include (but are not limited to):

  • Burnout, stress and low morale - Heavy workloads, stressful meetings/presentations and feelings of being unappreciated can cause employees to avoid going into work. Personal stress (outside of work) can lead to absenteeism.
  • Childcare and eldercare - Employees may be forced to miss work in order to stay home and take care of a child/elder when normal arrangements have fallen through (for example, a sick caregiver or a snow day at school) or if a child/elder is sick.
  • Depression - According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the leading cause of absenteeism in the United States is depression. Depression can lead to substance abuse if people turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their pain or anxiety.
  • Disengagement - Employees who are not committed to their jobs, coworkers and/or the company are more likely to miss work simply because they have no motivation to go.
  • Illness - Injuries, illness and medical appointments are the most commonly reported reasons for missing work (though not always the actual reason). Not surprisingly, each year during the cold and flu season, there is a dramatic spike in absenteeism rates for both full-time and part-time employees.
  • Injuries - Accidents can occur on the job or outside of work, resulting in absences. In addition to acute injuries, chronic injuries such as back and neck problems are a common cause of absenteeism.
  • Partial shifts - Arriving late, leaving early and taking longer breaks than allowed are considered forms of absenteeism and can affect productivity and workplace morale.

Costs of Lost Productivity
The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index surveyed 94,000 workers across 14 major occupations in the U.S. Of the 77% of workers who fit the survey's definition of having a chronic health condition (asthma, cancer, depression, diabetes, heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or obesity), the total annual costs related to lost productivity totaled $84 billion. According to the survey, the annual costs associated with absenteeism vary by industry, with the greatest loss occurring in professional occupations (excluding nurses, physicians and teachers); the 14 occupations and corresponding costs of lost productivity are shown in Figure 1.

Occupation Annual cost of lost productivity due to absenteeism (in billions)
Professional (excluding nurses, physicians and teachers) $24.2
Managers/executives $15.7
Service workers $8.5
Clerical/office $8.1
Sales $6.8
School teachers (K-12) $5.6
Nurses $3.6
Transportation $3.5
Manufacturing/production $2.8
Business owners $2.0
Installation/repair $1.5
Construction/mining $1.3
Physicians $0.25
Farmers/foresters/fishers $0.16

Figure 1: Annual cost of lost productivity by major U.S. occupations

According to Absenteeism: The Bottom-Line Killer, a publication of workforce solution company Circadian, unscheduled absenteeism costs roughly $3,600 per year for each hourly worker and $2,650 each year for salaried employees. The costs can be attributed to many factors including:

  • Wages paid to absent employees
  • High-cost replacement workers (overtime pay for other employees and/or temporary workers)
  • Administrative costs of managing absenteeism

Other indirect costs and effects of absenteeism include:

  • Poor quality of goods/services resulting from overtime fatigue or understaffing
  • Reduced productivity
  • Excess manager time (dealing with discipline and finding suitable employee replacements)
  • Safety issues (inadequately trained employees filling in for others, rushing to catch up after arriving as a replacement, etc)
  • Poor morale among employees who have to "fill in" or do extra work to cover absent coworkers

What Employers Can Do
Absenteeism is an especially difficult problem to tackle, because there are both legitimate and poor excuses for missing work - and it can be challenging for employers to effectively monitor, control and reduce absenteeism. Unless a company requires a written excuse from a doctor, for example, it can be difficult to determine if an employee is actually sick when missing work. At the same time, however, it is important for employers to consider the added costs associated with a sick employee who spreads an illness that gets the whole division - or a lot of customers - sick.

To address problems like this, some companies, cities and states have moved toward a mandatory paid sick leave policy, where each employee receives a specified number of days each year to use when sick.

Opponents of mandatory sick leave argue that it will ultimately cost businesses more money and lead to increased layoffs. In addition, opponents have concerns that employees will use all their sick days whether or not they need them. Advocates of such a move, however, argue that paid sick leave makes economic sense because it will help stop the spread of communicable diseases in the workplace and in schools - resulting in fewer instances of absenteeism in the long run - and that sick employees will be able to recover sooner.

The Centers for Disease Control, for example, states that paid sick leave could have an especially significant impact in the food service industry, where it estimate that sick food handlers are responsible for 53% of norovirus (a particularly nasty form of stomach virus) outbreaks. - One sick food handler could theoretically infect dozens or even hundreds of people, resulting in a large number of absences that could have been avoided if that employee had simply stayed home. Unfortunately, workers often either need the money or are worried about being terminated for calling in sick - even if it's unpaid leave - so they go to work even if they know they are contagious.

In an effort to reduce absenteeism, some companies offer incentives for going to work, such as earned time off or lotteries for workers who do not have any unexcused absences within a certain period. Other firms might try a more proactive approach, putting policies in place to focus on responses to employee health concerns, including:

  • Physical health
  • Psychological health
  • Work-home balance
  • Environmental health
  • Economic health

The logic with this approach is that healthier, happier employees will be more able and motivated to go to work each day, resulting in increased productivity and higher morale for the individual workers as well as the entire team. Although these employee wellness strategies may be expensive to implement and maintain, they can have a net positive effect on a company's bottom line - and that's good for business.

The Bottom Line
Absenteeism costs U.S. companies billions of dollars each year in lost productivity, wages, poor quality of goods/services and excess management time. In addition, the employees who do show up to work are often burdened with extra duties and responsibilities to fill in for absent employees, which can lead to feelings of frustration and a decline in morale.

Occasional absences from work are inevitable - people get sick or injured, have to take care of others, or need time during business hours to handle personal business. It is the habitual absences that are most challenging to employers, and that can have the greatest negative effect on coworkers. Because missed work days have a profound financial effect on a company's bottom line, it is beneficial for most businesses to implement strategies to equitably monitor, reduce and respond to absenteeism.

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