What Is Absenteeism?

Absenteeism refers to the habitual non-presence of an employee at his or her job. Habitual non-presence extends beyond what is deemed to be within an acceptable realm of days away from the office for legitimate causes such as scheduled vacations, occasional illness, and family emergencies.

Possible causes of over-absenteeism include job dissatisfaction, ongoing personal issues, and chronic medical problems. Regardless of the root cause, a worker who exhibits a long-term pattern of being absent may tarnish his reputation, which may consequently threaten his long-term employability. However, some forms of absence from work are legally protected and cannot be grounds for termination.

Understanding Absenteeism

Absenteeism refers to absence from work that extends beyond what would be considered reasonable and normal due to vacation, personal time, or occasional illness. Companies expect their employees to miss some work each year for legitimate reasons.

However, missing work becomes a problem for the company when the employee is absent repeatedly and/or unexpectedly, especially if that employee must be paid while he or she is absent. Absenteeism is also a particular problem if an employee is missing in action during busy times of year, or during times when deadlines for major projects are approaching.

While disability leave, jury duty obligations, and the observance of religious holidays are all legally protected reasons for an employee to miss work, some workers abuse these laws, saddling their employers with unfair costs in the process.

Below are some detailed explanations of the top reasons absenteeism may occur:

  • Burnout. Overworked employees with high-stake roles sometimes call in sick due to high stress and lack of appreciation for their contributions.
  • Harassment. Employees who are habitually picked on—either by senior management personnel or fellow staffers are apt to ditch work, in order to escape the relentless unpleasantness.
  • Childcare and eldercare. Employees might have to miss extensive days of work if they are charged with watching loved ones when regular hired caregivers or babysitters become sick and are temporarily unable to fulfill their obligations.
  • Mental illness. Depression is the main cause of American absenteeism, according to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health. This condition often leads individuals to abuse drugs and booze, which in turn causes further missed days of work.
  • Disengagement. Employees who feel dispassionate about their jobs are likely to blow off work, simply due to the lack of motivation.
  • Injuries or illnesses. Illness, injuries, and doctor's appointments are the main reported reasons employees don't come into work. The number of absentee cases dramatically rises during flu season.

Key Takeaways

  • Absenteeism is broadly defined as employee absence from work for lengths of time beyond what is considered an acceptable time span.
  • Frequent causes of absenteeism include burnout, harassment, mental illness, and the need to take care of sick parents and children.
  • There are reasonable causes for short absences, including vacation or occasional illness, as well as obligatory responsibilities like jury duty.

Example of Absenteeism

For example, Angela is dissatisfied with her working environment and job responsibilities. She regularly calls in sick to work for days at a time, often missing five days each month, even though she does not have any actual chronic health problems. (For related reading, see "The Causes and Costs of Absenteeism")

[Important: Employers may discourage absenteeism by taking several proactive steps—such as rewarding good attendance, providing emotional support to employees, setting clear attendance expectations, and formalizing the organization's attendance policy in written documents—that all new employees must review and sign.]