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Every employee in your organization is a valuable part of your business. This is true whether the employee is an entry-level front-line worker or a highly experienced executive. Each person’s contribution matters, and when one of those valued employees is absent? Nothing works quite as well as it should. A Bureau of Labor Statistics report has shown that the absence rate for all full-time wage and salary workers is 3.2%. 

Employee absenteeism is one of the biggest challenges employers face today. Some level of absence is expected and accepted

  • Employees getting sick, 
  • Child care issues
  • Mental and physical burnout
  • Family or personal obligations
  • Pre-planned vacation

But when those unplanned absences add up, the whole business suffers. According to one study, absenteeism can cost an organization $225.8 billion, $1,685 per employee per year.

That’s why we created this complete guide to employee absenteeism. You’ll learn everything you need to know about how it’s caused and what you can do to prevent it from damaging your business.

Let’s get started!

What is employee absenteeism?

The definition of employee absenteeism is the frequent absence of employees from their workplace. These absences are more than occasional - they happen habitually, and their high frequency means they’re out of the norm for most other employees.

Of course, there are legitimate reasons employees are absent from work. Sick days happen, and employees need time to recover from illnesses. There are family care emergencies that pop up, as well as unexpected weather events that can disrupt the ability to get to or perform work. Employees also need to take vacation time away from the office to rest and recharge so they can perform at their best when they come back.

However, employee absenteeism is about much more than these regular and expected leaves, which are accounted for in company policies and typically paid. Absenteeism involves unplanned absences that happen a lot and can include skipping workdays altogether, leaving work early, or arriving late. It’s a pattern of behavior that continues over time and has a damaging effect on the team and the company.

Causes of employee absenteeism

So why does employee absenteeism happen? There are a few common causes.

1. Low employee engagement

Employees who are not engaged with their work are not inspired to go the extra mile. They complete their daily tasks with minimal effort and then head home. Being disengaged from your work doesn’t inspire people to get to work on time and be enthusiastic every day - in fact, it can encourage excess absences.

2. Workplace burnout

If your employees have too much to do on their plates every single day, and they just don’t ever seem to get a rest, they will eventually get burned out. Workplace burnout is a real and growing issue, especially if your company is trying to cut costs by not hiring enough workers. While this might help save money in the short term, over time employees will get burnt out and start skipping work because they’re so overwhelmed.

3. Lack of flexibility

While flexible schedules are growing in popularity, many employers still don’t offer them. That can cause employee absenteeism as employees struggle to balance their lives, their family priorities, and their work commitments all at the same time.

4. Workplace harassment

It makes a lot of sense that if employees don’t feel comfortable or safe at work, they will start coming into work less. Harassment can be verbal or physical (or both), and can come from superiors and managers or colleagues. This also makes employees less interested in their work, so their performance suffers.

How to measure employee absenteeism?

Measuring employee absenteeism is pretty straightforward: just take the number of unexcused absences in a time period, divide it by the total time period, and then multiply the result by 100 to get the percentage of absenteeism over a month, a quarter, or a year.

Absenteeism formula: ((number of unexcused absences)/total period) x 100 = % of absenteeism

The next part, however, is a bit trickier. There’s no one number to tell you if your levels of employee absenteeism are too high. Having a level of zero is ideal, of course, but it’s also not very realistic. You will need to judge for yourself if it seems like your employee absenteeism level is higher than it should be.

And when you’re calculating the employee absenteeism level, be sure not to include legitimate and planned absences from work like sick days and vacations, or you will not have an accurate view of your employee absenteeism problem.

Employee absenteeism is a big problem for many organizations. It’s a big drain on business performance - in fact, it’s estimated that employee absenteeism costs employers $1,685 per employee, per year.

Absenteeism is also damaging to other employees on the team who need to increase their own workloads to cover for a frequently absent team member. And the effect of absenteeism on employee performance for the absent employee themself is real as well - they struggle to feel like a successful part of the team and the organization, and become further demoralized.

How to manage absenteeism in the workplace?

Employers often struggle with how to deal with employee absenteeism - they know it is costing them money and morale, but they’re not sure how to fix the problem. This can be discouraging, and so many managers and leaders opt to simply ignore the problem or resort to terminating the employee for excessive absenteeism.

But both of those are merely short-term solutions - they don’t address the underlying causes of employee absenteeism, and so the problem might well return again soon. Instead, employers should try these steps for how to reduce employee absenteeism.

1. Measure employee absenteeism levels

The first step to solving any problem is identifying the scale of the issue. Measuring absenteeism using the formula above will help you see if it is a big issue. And you can compare absenteeism levels in different departments and roles as well to see where the biggest problems are. This will help you get ready to tackle the problem.

2. Pinpoint the causes of absenteeism

It is natural to simply want to reprimand employees who are absent more often than they should be, and tell them not to do it again. However, that won’t solve the root of the problem and so it will probably not stop the behavior.

Instead, you should investigate why an employee or group of employees isn’t coming into work as often as they’re expected to. The causes of employee absenteeism can be something minor, or it could be an entrenched pattern of severe overwork or extensive workplace harassment.

How can you truly know what’s causing employees to shirk their work? Don’t assume that you know - ask them directly. Using employee survey tools like those in Empuls can help you ask the right questions to get to the root of the problem. It’s best not to narrow the focus of the survey to issues that you think might be causing it so you don’t lead employees to a certain answer. Instead, give them an open space to share their thoughts so they can be honest.

If the problem is just one employee, their manager should sit down and have an open and honest conversation with them about why they are not at work as much as they should be. The conversation should not be about blame or punishment - simply getting to the root of the problem. ‍

3. Respect employee views

Once you have surveyed employees to find out why there is an absenteeism problem, the next step can be the hardest: taking in the feedback and really listening to it. It can be difficult to hear about factors in your workplace that are making employees so unhappy that they’re skipping work, but it is very important. These factors won’t just affect the absent employees if they’re very serious - they could be dragging down overall morale at your company.

Taking employees seriously when they tell you they are being overworked or harassed is vital. That builds trust. Or the problem could be personal issues, like mental health issues. Listening to those problems and finding a workable solution also builds trust.

4. Increase employee engagement

Lack of employee engagement is one of the biggest problems causing employee absenteeism - and it’s also one of the most fixable. Increasing employee engagement is one of the best ways to solve the expensive and complex issue of employee absenteeism.

Employee engagement tools to reduce absenteeism

You can increase employee engagement in many ways. A few of the most effective tools to do so are:

  • A recognition platform like Empuls, where employees can give and receive recognition for a job well done. Employee recognition is a major factor in engagement and motivation.
  • A communication tool that can build bonds, especially with remote workers. Many companies use Slack, Teams, or other channels to keep in touch and check in.
  • A survey tool that can check in with employees regularly to surface any small or serious issues before they blow up into a larger problem.
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Kathleen O'Donnell

Kathleen O'Donnell LinkedIn

Kathleen is a freelance writer and employee communications and culture expert, with 6+ years of experience in corporate internal communications.