What Is Absenteeism? Definition, Causes, and Costs for Business

What Is Absenteeism?

Absenteeism refers to the habitual non-presence of an employee at their 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 their reputation, which may consequently threaten their long-term employability; however, some forms of absence from work are legally protected and cannot be grounds for termination.

Key Takeaways

  • Absenteeism is broadly defined as employee absence from work for lengths beyond what is considered an acceptable time span.
  • Frequent causes of absenteeism include burnout, harassment, mental illness, and the need to care for sick parents and children.
  • There are reasonable causes for short absences, including vacation or occasional illness, and obligatory responsibilities like jury duty.
  • Chronic absenteeism has detrimental effects on a company, such as lowered productivity, increased costs, and employee burnout.
  • Ways to manage absenteeism include providing a better work-life balance and physical and mental health benefits.

Understanding Absenteeism

Absenteeism refers to absence from work that extends beyond what would be considered reasonable and customary 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 they are absent. Absenteeism is also a particular problem if an employee is missing in action during busy times of the year or 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.

Why Absenteeism Happens

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 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 regularly hired caregivers or babysitters become sick and temporarily cannot 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 to work. The number of absentee cases dramatically rises during flu season.

The Costs of Absenteeism

The direct cost of absenteeism is a decrease in business productivity, which then reduces revenues and profits. If an employee cannot work then they cannot contribute to the growth and success of a company.

If the work of these absent employees cannot be covered by other employees, then the reason they were hired for leaves a gap in the company's workforce. Even if their work is picked up by other employees, that creates more work for those employees that can eventually lead to burnout for them.

Existing research estimates that employee absenteeism costs employers $3,600 a year per hourly employee and $2,650 a year for every salaried employee.

For example, if John was hired to perform Task ABC, and the jobs of three other people depend on John completing Task ABC, and he is absent a few times a month, then his productivity is lower than if he had been at work every day.

This not only causes his work to be delayed but those that depend on him, creating a chain reaction that slows the productivity of the company. This decrease in productivity lowers revenues and profits.

Other costs of absenteeism include poor quality work from overworked employees covering for absent employees, an extra burden for managers having to deal with absent employees, low morale for employees filling in for absent employees, increased costs as a result of having to pay absent employees even when they're not working, increased administrative costs of dealing with absenteeism, and higher costs of having to find replacements for absent employees, whether that be freelance workers who are usually paid higher or overtime pay, which is higher than regular pay, for employees who work longer covering absent employees.

How to Reduce Absenteeism

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.

If an employee is consistently absent, having a conversation with them about specific times that are just not excusable, such as specific meetings, can help reduce the impact of absenteeism.

Employers can also focus on health initiatives to discourage absenteeism. These can include working from home some days to help improve work-life balance, providing discounts on gym memberships, discounts on daycare for children, and introducing other physical and mental health benefits that employees can take advantage of.

Furthermore, most jobs come with a specific amount of personal or sick days that an individual can use. After that point, a variety of measures can be taken against an employee depending on the company and its policies. The bulk of these measures would be disciplinary that could result in the loss of the job.

What Is Chronic Absenteeism?

Chronic absenteeism is when an employee is consistently absent from the workplace, which impairs them from doing their work in a timely and productive manner. These regular absences can be in violation of a company's personal/sick day policy and lead to termination.

How Much Absenteeism Is Tolerated Before a Person Is Disciplined?

The amount of absenteeism that is tolerated before a person is disciplined will vary depending on the type of job and industry. An office job will be different from a nursing job, for example. Once absenteeism starts to impact performance is usually a good time to have an initial conversation with an employee regarding expectations. If absenteeism continues after this, then disciplinary action is warranted.

What Traits Are Connected to More Absenteeism at Work?

Personality traits that are connected to more absenteeism include being extroverted, lack of conscientiousness, higher use of substance abuse, depression, and age; younger people are more likely to miss work.

What Traits Are Connected to Less Absenteeism at Work?

Traits connected to less absenteeism include being introverted, conscientious, having no children, lack of or little depression, and age; older people are less likely to miss work.

How Do You Reduce Absenteeism In the Workplace?

Absenteeism in the workplace can be reduced through a variety of measures, such as implementing work-from-home initiatives to better balance work/life, benefits to employees that improve physical and mental health, such as gym membership discounts and therapist discounts, and benefits that cover the cost of daycare or other parental requirements. Absenteeism can also be reduced through rewarding good attendance and setting attendance expectations.

Article Sources
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  1. Dailypay. "How Much Are Your Absent Employees Affecting Your Bottom Line?" Accessed Feb. 17, 2022.

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