Absenteeism: Definition, Causes, and Remedies

Every employee needs time off, but if absences become chronic, it can hurt your organization’s culture, productivity, and profitability. Chronic absenteeism could also be a sign that your company needs to make some changes to its work culture, policies, or environment. By identifying the root causes and implementing a few key strategies, you can make progress toward reducing absenteeism and keeping your employees engaged.

Absenteeism definition: What is absenteeism?

Absenteeism can be defined as frequent absences that exceed what most workplaces consider reasonable. Reasonable absences include things like pre-scheduled vacation days, staying home when sick, or calling out for a personal emergency. Employee absenteeism might look like missing workdays every week or taking extended time off that doesn’t fall within the company’s PTO policy. Chronic absenteeism occurs when occasional absences become frequent.

Absenteeism in the workplace hampers an employee’s ability to do their job, which can harm their sense of efficacy, income, and career growth. It also affects the co-workers who rely on them and costs companies through lower morale and productivity.

Examples of excessive absenteeism

Days off are important to help employees recharge and manage their lives. Acceptable reasons to be absent from work are usually things an employer is made aware of in advance, such as:

  • Vacations
  • Parental leave
  • Jury duty
  • Medical leave
  • Bereavement

Unanticipated time off can also be acceptable. For example, employees may need time to attend to a personal emergency, get care for a sudden illness or injury, or tend to a loved one when a caregiver falls through for the day.

By its definition, absenteeism is different—it’s unanticipated, repeated, or extends far longer than is reasonable. For example:

  • Regularly calling out last minute or being absent from work without notice
  • Repeatedly coming in late or leaving early
  • Taking longer breaks than allowed
  • Taking off work for an approved reason, but stretching the absence beyond what’s reasonable

Common causes of absenteeism in the workplace

There are many possible causes of excessive absenteeism, but it often points to underlying issues in the workplace. Here are some of the most common reasons employees are absent from work:

  1. Your employees aren’t engaged. If workers don’t feel that their contributions matter, lack trusting work relationships, or aren’t confident about the company’s future or mission, it can be tough for them to fully engage.
  2. Work is unnecessarily inflexible. Employees who lack job autonomy may struggle to give 100 percent because they can’t work in a way that’s effective for them.
  3. Poor physical health. Acute and chronic health issues can also drive absenteeism at work. Flu season, for example, can have a big impact on attendance, and chronic health conditions may force employees to miss work more than they want to.
  4. Mental health conditions. A large study found that “mental health has a significantly larger effect than physical health” on absenteeism in the workplace—more than three times greater. And mental health challenges are common in the workforce. According to Gallup, 19 percent of employees in the United States rated their mental health as fair or poor, and “these workers report about four times more unplanned absences due to poor mental health” than peers who report good mental health.
  5. Harassment on the job. Employees who feel unsafe in their work environment may try to protect themselves by being absent from work.
  6. Poor leadership. It can be hard for employees to feel invested in their work if they don’t receive feedback, understand expectations or goals, or get recognized for their efforts and outcomes.
  7. Job burnout. The exhaustion and overwhelm associated with employee burnout can make it difficult for employees to do their best work.
  8. Injury. Injuries may constrain someone’s ability to do their job. If an injury goes untreated or isn’t given adequate time to heal, it can keep them out of work.

The cost of absenteeism

Both absenteeism and presenteeism—when employees are on the job but not performing at full capacity—are threats to any organization’s health. About 3 percent of the workforce is absent on any given day, yet many employers underestimate the impact. Here are some of the costs of absenteeism:

Reduced productivity. Employees who frequently miss work can’t accomplish as much as those who attend regularly, and may fall behind on their work in a way that affects their co-workers. If your company relies on having a certain number of teammates present each day to handle customer service or meet production goals, you likely can’t afford to have employees miss work very often. Making do with fewer workers can lead to missing goals or delivering poor results.

Financial loss. It’s estimated that absenteeism in the workplace costs employers as much as $3,600 per year for every hourly employee, and $2,650 per year for a salaried employee. Paying other workers overtime to fill in for their colleagues accounts for some of this financial loss, as does hiring contractors to supplement work. Research suggests that absenteeism can raise the number of overtime hours paid within an organization by 28 percent.

Low morale. Employee morale and company culture can suffer when employees are regularly absent from work. Co-workers may become resentful of colleagues who aren’t performing as expected, which can lead to interpersonal challenges and burnout. They may start to feel that their hard work doesn’t matter because it isn’t enough to offset the slack of their absent colleague.

Safety risks. If your organization operates under strict safety protocols, experienced workers who take time off may be replaced with fill-ins who were hastily trained. This can lead to safety risks.

How to reduce absenteeism in the workplace

Employee absenteeism presents complex challenges for organizations. It often takes a combination of strategies to make an impact. Here are a few suggestions for how to address chronic absenteeism.

Conduct surveys and assessments

The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) encourages companies to conduct a formal assessment to understand their absenteeism rate. Gathering information about adherence to attendance policies and identifying trends puts you in a better position to determine the cause and find a solution. Lyra Health offers workforce assessments to help employers understand how factors like excessive workload and lack of autonomy may affect team members and raise the risk of absenteeism and presenteeism.

Similarly, employee surveys can offer insights into what motivates employees, what they like about your workplace, and what could be improved. Taking action on those findings sends a strong message that the organization is listening and following through, which can boost morale and discourage absenteeism at work.

Increase workplace flexibility

In some cases, more flexibility may help address employee absenteeism. This can include changes in when and where work gets done. For example, a policy that allows employees to work from home could enable someone recovering from an injury to get work done even if they have trouble leaving the house. Or, allowing employees to complete some of their work outside typical business hours might give someone the flexibility they need to tend to family responsibilities while continuing to meet work goals.

There are other effective ways to give workers meaningful agency. For example, you could offer a lump sum of PTO that employees may use however they see fit, rather than allotting a specific number of days for sick time, vacation time, or personal time. If employees are able to choose how they use their PTO, they’re less likely to run out of PTO days that they really need.

Build a positive company culture

A positive work environment helps employees feel empowered, supported, and enthusiastic, whereas a toxic culture may contribute to turnover and chronic absenteeism. Some qualities of a healthy culture include:

  • Fairness toward all employees
  • Clear mission, values, and goals
  • Managers who create psychological safety for their teams
  • Collaboration and a sense of belonging

Offer manager training

Managers typically are in the best position to notice and respond to employee absenteeism, which means they need to be properly equipped to handle it. They may need training on things like communicating effectively, providing feedback, and fostering a healthy team culture.

Offer mental health benefits

“A clear link exists between managing health care and absenteeism and keeping productivity high,” says SHRM. “If employees are not at work—or are at work but not feeling their best—productivity suffers.” Recognizing this connection, many employers are expanding their mental health offerings in addition to providing traditional health insurance.

Provide recognition and rewards

Employees who feel undervalued or unnoticed may be less likely to be engaged at work. Recognition for hard work and positive outcomes is a strong motivator for many people. Some companies do this through monetary bonuses, prizes, or perks, but a genuine “thank you” can go a long way too.

Provide industry-standard salary and benefits

Well-paid employees with good benefits who feel taken care of will be more motivated to give back, and less likely to “steal time” from your company. Treat their time as valuable, and they will often respond in kind.

Building a stronger workplace

Absenteeism is a silent drain on productivity, profitability, and employee morale. By pinpointing the reasons for excessive absenteeism, you can start implementing solutions. Many of the strategies for reducing absenteeism rates come down to meeting your employees’ needs and taking steps to keep them engaged—goals you probably already have for taking care of your people.

Learn strategies to combat absenteeism

Lyra offers workforce assessments and tools to create a culture of mental wellness.

Learn more about Workforce Transformation
About the reviewer
Keren Wasserman

Keren is the organizational development program manager on the workforce transformation team at Lyra Health. Keren has a master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago and has worked as a management consultant focused on large-scale change management implementations. She lives in Seattle where she spends her free time hiking, soaking up the PNW's most glorious mountain views.

Clinically reviewed by
Keren Wasserman
Organizational Development Program Manager
By The Lyra Team
7 of February 2023 - 7 min read
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