What Is Absenteeism—and Why Is It Growing? Learn the Causes, Impact, and More

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, COVID-19 has transformed absentee rates at companies around the world.

In 2022, Americans averaged nearly 1.6 million absences per month, adding up to approximately 19 million missed days of work annually. Absenteeism has roughly tripled from pre-pandemic levels.

As companies adapt to this new reality, absenteeism is an unavoidable challenge in the workplace. But by learning more about what absenteeism is and what causes it, you can understand how absentee rates are affecting your organization—and what you can do about it.

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What Is Absenteeism?

Absenteeism is the term for chronic or habitual workplace absence that is unplanned and unannounced. Absenteeism also includes partial absences like lateness, early departures, and even extended lunches.

It’s important to differentiate between absenteeism and other forms of absence. Every employee misses work occasionally, but absenteeism has particularly disruptive effects:

Unlike legitimate absences due to medical conditions or emergencies, absenteeism isn’t a legitimate absence and is therefore unlikely to be excused.

What Is Considered a Good Reason to Call Off Work?

Sudden illness, family leave, and personal leave are all examples of unexpected absences that are legitimate and therefore likely to be excused. These aren’t habitual or taken without good reason, so they aren’t absenteeism.

Illnesses and other legitimate, unscheduled absences are bound to happen—but although they're sudden, they tend to be one-off events that have little long-term impact on productivity.

In some cases, absences may qualify as reasonable accommodations under federal laws like the Americans With Disabilities Act; for example, if an employee needs to attend regular doctor's appointments to manage a chronic condition.

These types of unplanned absences don’t become absenteeism unless the absence becomes extended or repeated without a supporting cause.

By comparison, scheduled absences come with advance notice. Vacation, holidays, and foreseeable medical absences like maternity leave or surgical recovery all fall within this category.

Whether it’s purely a reduction in manpower that needs to be compensated for, or a more complex issue like temporarily taking over client relationships, having advance notice or a complete understanding of the issue is critical to making a staff reduction go more smoothly.

Both planned and unplanned absences can impact productivity, but the impact and implications of absenteeism are more harmful to your organization.

Common Examples of Family Emergencies

Employee Absenteeism May Be Due to Poor Employee Experience

Absenteeism is often a sign of poor management or poor working conditions or even the direct result of both; for example, a Draconian attitude towards absences might result in sick people coming into work and making their coworkers sick, which in turn results in absenteeism. (While illness is legitimate, making your own employees sick as a result of your poor management is a preventable issue.)

Scheduling difficulties and lost short-term productivity may be the most visible impacts of absenteeism, but there are far-reaching impacts like undermined relationships and damage to an organization’s employer brand—damage that may be impossible to repair and that may not even be visible at first.

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How to Calculate an Absentee Rate

The formula for measuring absenteeism is relatively easy. Simply take the number of unexcused absences in a given period of time, divide it by the total period, and multiply the result by 100 to get the percentage of absenteeism over a month, year, or other time period.

Absentee Rate = ((Number of Unexcused Absences) / Total Time Period) x 100

There’s no fixed number or percentage that can tell you how much absenteeism is too much; zero is ideal, but some absenteeism is guaranteed in an organization of more than a few people.

The most important thing is to track and calculate unexcused absences separately from legitimate ones. Both cause drops in productivity, but the former are those that cause the most damage and the ones you are more likely able to reduce. Tracking both legitimate absences and absenteeism as one and the same doesn’t give you an accurate picture of the problem.

If you’re not tracking absenteeism by itself, you won’t know if your efforts to fix it have made an improvement.

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5 Tips for Preventing Absenteeism

Preventing absenteeism means being a better employer. It sounds overly simple, but it’s the underlying theme of every individual strategy for keeping your employees present, productive, and on-time.

1. Identify the Root Cause

They may be worried about spending their vacation time on something other than vacation, or they may worry that a manager will turn down their request for some time off. They could feel unappreciated or disengaged and see no obligation to notify anyone that they will be missing work. Or they may simply be taking advantage of a manager who provides endless second chances due to kindness or a shortage of available workers.

2. Create a Thoughtful PTO Policy

Counteracting the negative effects of scheduled absences is as simple as being thoughtful and having a little foresight. Consider the following when you become aware of an upcoming departure:

You may not be able to have reserve staff on call to fill in for missing people, but you can work a percentage of absences into your staffing plan to provide a cushion of coverage. In management teams especially, that cushion comes in the form of making sure that information isn’t siloed with a single individual. That way, a case of the flu or a fender-bender won’t bring work to a halt.

3. Practice Compassion

Better communication means telling people to stay home when they feel sick, and reassuring them that legitimate reasons for lateness or time off won’t be turned down or dealt with in an unreasonable fashion. It also means encouraging employees to communicate about problems they’re facing at home and at work so that you can help. And it means remaining open-minded about issues for which you’re to blame.

4. Offer Competitive Wages

Compensation simply means paying people competitive wages for the market, so they don’t feel like they should take advantage of you in return for your underappreciation of their labor value. It also cuts down on the likelihood that people are out looking for a new job that provides better wages.

5. Provide Perks and Incentives

Improving engagement could mean offering better training, more opportunities for advancement, or other forms of career development that leave employees feeling more dedicated to their jobs, and it means helping managers understand how to properly manage.

Improving benefits could be as straightforward as finding a better healthcare plan that keeps employees healthier through things like free flu shots during the workday—or it could mean adding telecommuting as an option, implementing an unlimited PTO policy, or turning sick days into “personal days” to prevent people from feeling like they need to lie about their situation to justify their need for time off.

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