Absenteeism is an unavoidable challenge in the workplace. But by learning more about the definition and causes of absenteeism and by studying the numbers behind your company’s absenteeism issues, you can gain an understanding of how big of a problem it is for your organization and what you can do about it.
What Is Employee Absenteeism?
Absenteeism is the term for chronic or habitual workplace absence, often unplanned and unannounced. Every employee misses work on occasion, but it’s important to differentiate between absenteeism and other forms of absence. Absenteeism isn’t a legitimate absence that is excused by the employer or the result of legitimate medical condition or disability. Both legitimate absences and absenteeism can impact your organization, but understanding which is which is the first step towards nullifying their effects.
Excused Absences (Aren’t Absenteeism)
Sudden illness, family leave, and personal leave are some examples of absences that arrive unannounced but are legitimate and therefore likely to be excused by an employer. These don’t become absenteeism unless the absence becomes extended or repeated without a supporting cause.
Scheduled absences are the best kind; they come with advance notice: Vacation, holidays, and foreseeable medical absences like maternity leave or surgical recovery all fall within this category. These aren’t habitual or taken without good reason, so they aren’t absenteeism. They are entirely legitimate, and easier to prepare for so they cause minimal drag on productivity.
Unexcused Absences (a.k.a. Absenteeism)
Absenteeism is usually defined as chronic or habitual absence without good reason, but most people don’t realize that absenteeism also includes partial absences like lateness, early departures, and even extended lunches. Absenteeism is, first and foremost, lacking in one area: legitimacy. Announced or unannounced, any repeated or extended absence that doesn’t come with a good reason counts as absenteeism.
Which is Worse?
Both types of absences can have negative impacts, but the impact and implications of absenteeism are more harmful to your organization. The difference is in the reason, and to a lesser extent, the ability to prepare. Illness and other legitimate unscheduled absences are bound to happen, but while they are sudden, they come with the understanding that they are either one-off or actionable. Even absences that last much longer than a single day can be less impactful if managers and affected employees have information and opportunity to properly prepare. 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.
Absenteeism, on the other hand, has multiple disruptive effects. First, it’s more likely to occur unannounced, worsening the impact on every affected party. Second, it undermines trust between management and the employee, and between employees themselves. Third, and maybe most importantly, it’s usually an indicator that some sort of fundamental change is needed. 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 in to work and making their coworkers sick, which in turn results in absenteeism (because 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.
How to Measure Absenteeism
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, a year, etc.
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 best way to prevent unscheduled absenteeism? Be a better employer.
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.
How to Account for Workplace Absences
The methods for reducing the impacts of legitimate employee absences are different depending on whether they’re scheduled or unannounced. 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:
- Reinforce: Hire additional staff or call in part-time employees to fill vacant positions
- Communicate: Make team members aware that they may need to help take up the slack
- Delegate: Ensure the appropriate people are aware of any projects and/or relationships that will require maintenance, and gain access to any information or permissions they’ll need to perform the absent employee’s job
- Record: Keep track of what goes on while the absent employee is away, so you can schedule a follow-up when they return
That’s pretty straightforward, common-sense advice. Unfortunately, legitimate absences can also catch employers by surprise. Unannounced absences require a level head, prior planning, and maintaining good internal communication. 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 executive teams, 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.
In the case of absenteeism, the best way to counteract the negative effects is to try to prevent the issue from happening in the first place. That doesn’t mean it won’t still happen, but it means it will happen less often.
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.
Employees who go absent without notice usually do so for only a few reasons. Most of the time, it comes down to one of the following:
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.
If you’re looking to reverse the trend of unannounced absenteeism, you need to improve the way you handle all of those causal elements in your workplace.
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.
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.
Finally, 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. Here’s a great example from a Bambooligan who used to work in retail: A boutique owner arrives at his shop unannounced one afternoon to find the door locked and the lights off. Livid, he pulls out his phone and in no time at all, he has the shop manager in tears on the other end. Her explanation? She closed the shop because she was the only person there and had to go to the bathroom. Talk about a gap in communication…
If you can work on all of the above, chances are, you’ll likely see a reduction in absenteeism. And if you’re providing fair pay, solid benefits, and an engaging work environment, you’ll have more candidates for open positions if you do end up having to terminate a chronically absent employee. In the end, being a better employer will result in better behavior from your employees, because consciously or not, they’ll understand you’ve created a workplace that deserves their dedication.