Definition of Absenteeism


Absenteeism is an employee’s habitual absence from work without a legitimate reason.

What is absenteeism?

Absenteeism is when an employee repeatedly does not show up for work. There are generally two types of absenteeism:

Excused or approved absences

Although it’s not a typical example, even approved absences can be qualified as absenteeism. Mainly when an employee takes extended PTO with short or no notice.

Many types of absences are allotted for workers in company policy. This can include government-mandated leaves, such as jury duty or military leave. In this instance, employees can use:

  • Unpaid and paid vacation days
  • Sick leave
  • Maternity leave
  • Other related time-off policies that are included in your employee handbook

Unexplained absences

We often refer to chronic, unapproved absences when discussing employee absenteeism. This doesn’t just include taking full days offs but also coming in late and leaving early. Choosing to take extended breaks could also be considered part of chronic absenteeism.

In other words, absenteeism is when an employee shows little interest in being at work. In some cases, absenteeism can start after an employee takes approved leave.

There are many reasons why an employee may begin to be absent from work:

  • Burnout
  • Child and elderly care
  • Depression or mental illness
  • Disengagement or dissatisfaction with work
  • Harassment
  • Low motivation
  • Overwork
  • Personal issues
  • Physical illness
  • Stress
  • Toxic workplace

Why is absenteeism important to a small business?

High absenteeism often translates into lower productivity, difficult collaboration, and additional costs. When an employee takes time off, you still spend budget dollars:

  • Processing their payroll
  • PTO
  • Overtime costs to cover their absence
  • Potentially hiring extra help

In fact, according to one study, employee absences cost employers $3,600 per hourly employee.

At the same time, absenteeism can lower morale and cause significant delays. Excessive absenteeism would likely affect the worker’s performance and could warrant termination.

If your organization faces high absenteeism and high employee turnover, there may be an issue with the current workplace environment or workforce management procedures.

To reduce absenteeism in the workplace, employers can:

  • Ensure that your attendance and absenteeism policy is updated and used in employee training
  • Provide support to employees dealing with challenging issues through benefits such as therapy, financial planning, or remote work offerings
  • Meet with the employee and ask if there is anything that would make their work easier or more fulfilling
  • Provide employees with frequent positive feedback
  • Reward regular attendance

It may be best to have a brief, private session with your employee to discuss their absenteeism. Using empathy in these sessions and framing the discussion to support your worker is important.

Another way to get around absenteeism is to offer unlimited PTO. While it sounds counterintuitive, employees typically take fewer days off when their company offers unlimited vacation time. Furthermore, “unlimited” usually isn’t a free-for-all.

Usually, what’s referred to as unlimited paid time off is limited to three or four weeks, and all types of absences are grouped together.

What is the history of absenteeism?

Historically, sick leave, PTO days, and other related benefits didn’t exist. If employees didn’t come to work, they didn’t get paid and could get fired.

We know that happy, healthy, and employee-centric employment practices support a more productive workplace.

Unions and employee contracts significantly changed the landscape. Over time, companies also realized that well-rested employees and the effective use of time off translated into lower production costs and improved productivity.

Today, we know that happy, healthy, and employee-centric employment practices support a more productive workplace.

It’s often better to offer time off to attract and retain talent. And when it comes to workplace absenteeism, addressing the root causes can improve the office environment for everyone.

Other terms similar to absenteeism you should know

  • Leave of Absence – This umbrella term covers every type of employee absence, and the list can be quite extensive.
  • Bereavement Leave – This is a special type of leave offered to employees when one of their family members passes away.
  • Leave accrual – Accrued leave reflects how many hours of paid leave an employee earns according to the benefits and policies you, as their employer, define in your personnel policies.

Summary of the definition of absenteeism

Absenteeism is when employees take regular, often unapproved, time off. This behavior typically affects the whole team and can reduce productivity while keeping administrative costs high. But it’s often rooted in burnout, stress, and other issues that can be addressed by the human resources management team or small business owners.

Similar glossary definitions you must know

  • Boomerang Employees – A boomerang employee leaves and then returns, sometimes multiple times. While it’s not entirely the same as a chronically absent employee, the associated direct and indirect costs can be similar.
  • Employee Benefits – A comprehensive benefits package can help keep absenteeism at bay. Some ideas include Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), unlimited time off, and mental health services.
  • Time and Attendance Recordkeeping – Having an accurate time and attendance documentation process can help reduce absenteeism and make it easier to spot attendance issues.
  • Department of Labor (DOL) – The DOL covers key federal employment practices, and when setting up your leave policies, it’s important to remain compliant with DOL regulations.

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