Absence Management: Why You Should Be Doing It

Regardless of your business size, you must have attendance policies that address employee absences.


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Absence Management: Why You Should Be Doing It

Punctuality is a critical soft skill. Regardless of where an employee works or the nature of their job, it’s vital that they show up for work as scheduled. Otherwise, the impact can be severe for the employer. The good news is that you can mitigate this risk via absence management.

What is absence management?

According to Gartner, “Absence management is an employer’s approach — via policies, procedures or programs — to:

  • Reduce employee absenteeism,
  • Avoid workforce disruption, and
  • Maximize employee productivity.”

To truly grasp this definition, it helps to know about absenteeism and its associated costs.

What is employee absenteeism?

In general, absenteeism is habitual absence from a duty or obligation. In the employment world, absenteeism refers to an employee who frequently misses work. This type of absence is often “unexcused,” — meaning the employee did not receive permission and was expected to be at work. Conversely, an “excused” absence means the absence was authorized, typically by the employee’s manager or supervisor.

Absenteeism is usually associated with full-day absences. However, it can also take the form of:

  • Arriving to work late
  • Leaving early
  • Taking longer breaks

All without permission.

Absenteeism can deteriorate into excessive absenteeism. This happens when the employee has racked up an unreasonable number of unexcused absences within a specific time frame — such as 2 or more unexcused absences within a 30-day period. Ultimately though, what constitutes excessive absenteeism depends on the employer.

There are many reasons for employee absenteeism, including:

  • Personal illness
  • Family problems
  • Childcare issues
  • Undesirable working conditions
  • Conflict with management or coworkers
  • Lack of commitment to the job
  • Insubordination
  • Job hunting
  • Poor work ethic

Note that absenteeism is increasing across the United States.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says, “About 7.8 million workers missed work in January 2022 because they had an illness, injury, medical problem, or appointment, up from 3.7 million in January 2021.”

Moreover, there’s a sharp increase in the number of people who usually work full time but switched to part-time due to an illness-related issue.

Unfortunately, none of this bodes well for employers.

Costs of absenteeism

The short story is that absenteeism costs U.S. employers hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Next is the long story.

Productivity losses arising from personal and family health issues cost employers $225.8 billion per year or $1,685 per employee annually. This data comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC uses obesity as an example, stating, “Obese employees experience higher levels of absenteeism due to illness than normal weight employees.” In addition, the indirect costs of poor health, including absenteeism, “may be several times higher than direct medical costs.”

A different analysis found that unscheduled absenteeism costs employers around $3,600 annually per hourly employee and $2,650 annually per salaried employee.

These costs may stem from:

  • Wages paid to the absent employee
  • Overtime pay to other employees who must pick up the slack
  • Administrative costs of dealing with absenteeism
  • Poor quality of work caused by staffing shortages and employee burnout
  • Safety problems due to insufficiently trained employees filling in for absent coworkers
  • Low morale among employees forced to cover for their absent colleagues

On average, absenteeism rates in hourly workplaces typically range from 5% – 10%. While rates vary by industry, absenteeism is more prevalent in industries with higher stress levels.

Now that we’ve explored absenteeism and its costs, let’s examine how absence management can help.

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Elements of successful absence management

As mentioned earlier, absence management is about:

  • Reducing employee absenteeism
  • Preventing workplace disruption
  • Maximizing employee productivity

At a glance, this seems like a monumental undertaking. However, a study found that employers are more comfortable tackling absence management challenges than in the past — due to increased marketplace resources. Next are key aspects of successful absence management programs.

Left unchecked, absenteeism can significantly jeopardize workplace productivity and the bottom line.

Absence management for leave of absences

The study mentioned above offers the following recommendations for managing leaves of absence:

  • Implement a return-to-work program that includes written guidelines on bringing employees (on leave) back to work.
  • Generate reports on leave of absence usage patterns and costs.
  • Offer health management programs, such as employee assistance, disease management, or wellness programs.
  • Provide a central contact (e.g., online portal and phone line) for reporting leave of absences and paid time off.

Absence management for unexcused absences

This is the worst type of absenteeism. Because it’s unplanned, it can easily and seriously disrupt the workplace. For instance, it can result in decreased productivity, increased overtime costs, employee burnout, and low morale.

To combat unexcused absences:

  • Establish strong attendance policies (more on this later).
  • Take a thorough look at your workplace to see if it’s contributing to absenteeism.
  • Prioritize employee engagement. This can help you understand the root causes of absenteeism.
  • Establish disciplinary measures for unexcused absences.
  • Do not solely rely on your handbook to inform employees of your attendance policies. Have managers and supervisors verbally and tactfully reinforce the rules as well.
  • Do not exclude management from your attendance requirements. They should lead by example.

Attendance policy

Below are common characteristics of a well-developed attendance policy.

  • Purpose of the policy. Include your expectations for employees. For example, employees are expected to come to work and complete their shifts as scheduled.
  • Definitions for key terms, such as “absence,” “excused absence,” “unexcused absence,” “absenteeism,” and “excessive absenteeism.”
  • Don’t forget to address late arrivals, early departures, and unauthorized breaks.
  • Exceptions to the rules. Explain what employees need to do if they cannot report to work as scheduled or if they need to take longer breaks.
  • Disciplinary actions. For example, 2 or more unexcused absences within 30 days will lead to suspension. Eight unexcused absences within a 12-month period are grounds for termination.
  • Job abandonment. How long does an employee need to be absent (without permission) for it to become job abandonment?
  • Legal considerations. Consider applicable legal requirements under federal, state, or local law.

Regardless of your business size, you must have attendance policies that address employee absences. This cannot be overstated because legal experts say “many small businesses do not establish absenteeism policies for their companies.” Those with only a few employees often don’t feel it’s worth the trouble.

However, business consultants advise small employers to develop formal written policies on attendance and absenteeism. While this might sound daunting, technology makes navigating the process much simpler.

The role of technology in absence management

It’s impractical for the average employer to coordinate attendance and absences without HR technology because the process is far too complex for manual systems. This is especially true for businesses with remote, hybrid, multi-state, or global teams.

HR software automates and enables absence management in these areas:

  • Scheduling employees
  • Capturing and tracking work time
  • Recording employee breaks
  • Managing time off requests
  • Administering paid and unpaid leave
  • Generating attendance and absence reports
  • Detecting patterns in absenteeism
  • Analyzing effects of absenteeism on engagement and turnover
  • Coordinating absences and payroll to ensure payroll accuracy
  • Increasing compliance with employment laws

Curb absenteeism before it’s too late

If left unchecked, absenteeism can significantly jeopardize workplace productivity and the bottom line. You can minimize it through absence management powered by HR technology. To get started, check out Zenefits HR software.



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