Absenteeism: Causes, Impacts, and Solutions for the workplace

Absenteeism in the workplace can severely impact productivity and revenue, costing billions annually. This article addresses effective strategies and the importance of a skills matrix in managing absenteeism.

By Brad Nakase, Attorney

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What does absenteeism in the workplace mean?

Workplace absenteeism is a common problem that costs the United States economy $84 billion a year. Known as a “bottom-line killer,” absenteeism affects both an organization’s capacity to retain employees and their ability to make money. We will explore the definition of absenteeism, common causes, and its effects in this guide, which concludes with 13 efficient absenteeism strategies.

To begin, let us define employee absenteeism, often known as workplace absenteeism. Whatever the reason, missing work or failing to arrive on time is absenteeism. Usually unforeseen, such when someone becomes sick, but it can sometimes be intentional, like during a strike or deliberate absence. The fact that the individual had a job schedule is crucial to this definition. This indicates that personal, jury duty, vacation, and other leaves are not considered excuses for absenteeism. Synonyms for absenteeism that are frequently used are absence, illness, skipping, or taking time off.

An absenteeism rate is most frequently used to calculate workplace absenteeism. The number of missed workdays divided by the total number of workdays in a particular time yields this rate. One important HR metric is this absenteeism rate. For instance, high absenteeism may be a sign of issues with the staff or company culture.

The effects of workplace absenteeism

The workplace can be severely impacted by absenteeism. Employers in the United States lose $225.8 billion in productivity each year as a result of employee absenteeism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The cost per employee is $1.685.

According to research conducted by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, the cost of employee absenteeism in Europe’s workplaces may approach 2.5% of GDP. This would result in an absenteeism cost of $470 billion in the European Union alone—more than twice as much as in the US.

A closer look at the figures reveals that the cost of absenteeism encompasses more than just the expense of hiring a replacement employee. It also covers productivity loss from this replacement, productivity loss from coworkers, and productivity loss from supervisors.

According to a global SHRM survey, the United States experiences productivity losses ranging from 22.6% for planned absences to 36.6% for spontaneous absences. The supervisor’s productivity loss was 15.7% and involved duties including handling absence, modifying procedures, and taking on specific responsibilities.

High absenteeism can have negative effects on a person’s career perceptions since the employee may come up with an excuse or rationale for their absence, lose salary, face absence penalties, and cause accidents when they return to an unfamiliar work environment. In addition to the individual, there may be effects on their coworkers, workgroup, organization, family, and even society.

Nurses are just one example of how absences affect society. Compared to other roles, nurses frequently exhibit a higher degree of absenteeism due to their high-stress work environment. Because there is a reduction in the ability to provide care, this has a very real effect on society.

There could be advantages to absenteeism. The person will be able to relax and experience less stress. Coworkers benefit from greater job variety, the chance to learn new skills, and overtime money for taking on extra work. The knowledge base is broadened and the unit becomes more adaptable when responding to absenteeism, which facilitates the replacement of the missing worker for workgroups and organizations.

Benchmark for absenteeism

Before we get into the various reasons for absenteeism, let us first establish a baseline for the phenomenon. Even while determining these explanations reveals more about the variations in absence rates among nations, it is nonetheless fascinating to see them.

For the US and the EU, there is an abundance of trustworthy absenteeism data. In the United States, the rate of absence is 2.8%, whereas in the European Union, it is approximately 4.7%. In Canada, the average rate of worker absenteeism is 3.5%; this figure is 5.1% in the public sector and 3.1% in the private sector.

The rates of absenteeism are greater in the European Union. This is predicated on the most recent World Health Organization (WHO) data available. The amount of days missed is reported by the WHO. We estimated this based on the European average of 251 working days annually.

Still unanswered is this: what constitutes a reasonable absenteeism rate? How low may our companies’ absenteeism be?

How much absenteeism is acceptable?

We must distinguish between absences due to illness and absences for other causes in order to determine what constitutes a good absence rate.

Absenteeism related to illness cannot be avoided. Every few years, the flu strikes us all. In such circumstances, we must remain at home in order to recover. This means that, even though individual absence behaviors can vary, collectively, we can quickly determine whether absences in an organization are due to illness or other reasons.

Illness accounts for 1.5% of total absences on average. This indicates that four workdays a year on average are lost to illness and spent at home. Both at work and in schools, this has been observed. For instance, a 2012 study conducted in the United States revealed that the average percentage of time missed due to illness was 1.24% from October to May, and 1.35% during the influenza season. Similar rates can be seen in the following graph.

Remember that this is an overall percentage. An individual may have a larger percentage if they were unlucky enough to contract bronchitis and become sick for two weeks. But 1.5% of absences with a sufficiently large sample size are due to illness.

Therefore, anything above this general guideline of 1.5% is probably due to factors other than disease. Personal problems, excessive work-related stress, a strained rapport with the immediate management, or other workplace disputes can all be examples of this. This does not imply that the worker is to blame for this. It’s possible that the worker is confined to a demanding position with insufficient tools to perform it well. But the majority of absences above 1.5% are avoidable.

Accordingly, an average cumulative absence rate of greater than 1.5% for an organization is reason for concern and ought to prompt focused efforts meant to bring absence down to more manageable levels. This could be an examination of stresses in the person’s workplace, a targeted intervention to encourage employee wellbeing, or a job analysis and makeover to make a job more enjoyable and more rewarding.

Let’s examine typical absenteeism causes and explanations for high absenteeism rates in order to gain a better understanding of absenteeism.

Reasons behind absenteeism

Payment for time off due to illness

A few factors come to light while examining the reasons behind high absence at work. Let’s begin by looking at a nation like Norway that has an extremely high absence rate. According to a 2009 study, Norway reports between 6 and 7% of absences on a daily average. In this case, the absence rate for workplaces in the 90th percentile was around 11%, whereas the rate for businesses in the 10th percentile of the absence rate distribution was 3.1%.

The fact that 100% of a worker’s lost wages resulting from absence are covered in Norway is one reason, even though the data is rather outdated and subject to annual fluctuations. A study conducted on Swedish data from 1955 to 1999 revealed that permanent increases in the overall amount of sick leave per employee are typically linked to more generous payment for sick leave, and vice versa.

Similar findings were found in a research conducted in a major Italian bank. This bank’s employees were only shielded from termination after twelve weeks of employment. According to the survey, once employment protection is granted, the number of days of absence each week more than doubles.

The opportunity cost of not working: absenteeism and the economy

Fascinatingly, worker protection may not be the only factor contributing to this outcome. A state’s death rates will decrease by 0.54% for every percentage point that the unemployment rate rises. Accordingly, when the economy grows, so do smoking and obesity rates, while decreasing physical activity and unhealthy eating habits occur. Exercise and diets get better as the unemployment rate goes up.

That does not imply, however, that illness will increase in periods of economic expansion. An American study found a correlation between absenteeism and the unemployment rate.

This is probably because there are more demands on workers when the economy is struggling, and there are less benefits, bonuses, and pay raises for employees, in addition to increased health and safety monitoring.

This study demonstrates the complexity and diversity of the absenteeism issue. One of the most intriguing conclusions is that people are less inclined to be absent when the potential cost of missing work is higher. The high cost of absenteeism encourages people to work hard even when it may make them sicker and more likely to die.

This effect is also present at the micro level, giving rise to a number of excellent absenteeism interventions, which we will address in the article’s last section.

Gender disparities in absenteeism

Additionally, absence behavior varies by gender. The absenteeism rates among women are higher than those among men. This is societal in addition to physiological. For instance, mothers typically stay at home to care for their sick children. This causes a higher frequency of absences, which often passes quickly.

Furthermore, the causes of illness vary widely. Men are more likely than women to suffer from disorders of the head and neck (otorhinolaryngological disorders), such as anxiety and somatization.

Substance abuse

Abuse of drugs and alcohol is another factor in absenteeism. According to data from the U.S. 2008–2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, employees who reported abusing prescription medications were around 7% more likely to report missing work in the previous month (a 200–300% increase over usual absence levels) and missed work an extra 0.25 days.

High-risk drinkers were up to twenty-two times more likely to miss work than low-risk drinkers, and they were also more likely to be involved in accidents, get sick, and be injured in general, according to an Australian study involving 13,582 workers. There is room for tailored interventions that are both cost-effective and impactful, given that over 40% of workers consume alcohol at unsafe levels and alcohol-related absences are disproportionately concentrated in particular workforce subpopulations.


Nationwide, the prevalence of diabetes is on the rise. In the US, it was projected that diabetes-related lower productivity cost $90 billion. This represents an increase from the $58 billion in 2007. Time lost from work as a result of illness, absenteeism, or even early retirement is a measure of lost productivity.


The effects of depression are widespread throughout the world. According to estimates, the yearly incidence of depression in the United States is 9.66%, and the average cost of absence per person is $390. Nonetheless, the approximate expense of absenteeism due to depression was significantly greater, coming up at $5,524.


Another element that affects absence is age. The likelihood of an unnecessary absence decreases with age. As a result, their absences become less frequent. But as people age, they are more likely to develop chronic illnesses, which can cause prolonged absences.

Thirteen practical absenteeism measures

According to the studies we previously covered, there are a number of typical causes of absenteeism. Interventions or HR practices that mitigate these impacts may be effective in lowering employee absenteeism.

A common objective of these treatments is to raise the opportunity cost of failing. Generally speaking, absenteeism rates decrease with increasing costs associated with not working (e.g., seeing a doctor to obtain a health slip, asking coworkers to cover shifts, etc.). This implies that many of these have the potential to be very beneficial when excessive absenteeism occurs. They won’t work, though, if it’s at a minimum (

  • Washing hands
  • Hand washing greatly lowers absenteeism during the flu season. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we should always wash our hands for a minimum of 20 seconds. Washing hands considerably lowers the rate of infections during the flu season, despite inconsistent results throughout the regular season. Simple yet efficient interventions include posting reminders for people to clean their hands before eating lunch, after using the restroom, and when they first arrive at the office.

    1. Regular exercise

    Exercise frequency has a negative correlation with absence, according to a 2001 study. Compared to those who worked out three times a week, those who did not exercise had a 50% higher chance of being unwell for more than seven days in a given year. The table below presents the details. According to the same study, exercising merely once a week can already result in a 30% reduction in absences. Thus, corporate wellness initiatives that successfully encourage physical activity can also be successful.

    1. Workplace health promotion (WPH)

    WHP is designed to stave against sickness. When they work, they lower absenteeism. These programs (such as an alcohol reduction program among blue-collar employees) are particularly effective when implemented among workers who share similar conditions. Programs for employee wellness are a prime illustration of this.

    1. Employee assistance program (EAP)

    The goal of EAPs is worker rehabilitation. The goals of these intervention programs are to enhance health and lower absenteeism.

    1. Health screening

    Regular screenings for diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure, and colorectal cancer can aid in the early detection of issues before they pose a risk to workers. These examinations promote worker health and lower absenteeism.

    1. Management of Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD)

    AOD rules are tactics to prevent drug misuse and frequently involve formal written policies that forbid using drugs, drink, or smoke in the workplace. Although they can be useful in lowering binge drinking, they must be more all-encompassing in order to affect drug use. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between lower employee substance usage or absenteeism and alcohol and drug testing alone.

    1. Drug testing

    In certain parts of the world, it is customary to implement policies requiring drug testing. They give a tried-and-true method of lowering absence abuse. Drug testing programs, while frequently unpopular, are generally cost-effective and reduce absenteeism, albeit frequently at the expense of employee morale.

    1. Depression therapy

    For long-term conditions like depression, enhanced care might be quite beneficial. Enhanced care patients reported 8.2% higher production and 28.4% lower absenteeism during a two-year period, according to a 2004 study. This translated into a yearly figure of 2.601 USD per depressed full-time equivalent.

    1. Encouraging dedication

    Reduced absenteeism is the result of a person’s dedication to the company and alignment with its objectives. Reducing absenteeism is a result of strengthening organizational commitment and forging a common goal that all personnel are dedicated to.

    1. Modifying duties

    Another strategy to reduce absenteeism is to ask workers to reschedule their shifts on their own. This creates social pressure for workers to show up because they have to ask their coworkers to step in and take over their shift.

    1. Verification of absence

    Absence is reduced when a system is put in place that requires medical documentation to be used to validate any type of absence. This is referred to as absence culture in the literature. One or two days of unexcused absences that are implicitly regarded as normal and unavoidable will make them infectious.

    1. Individuality and adaptability

    Employee absenteeism patterns are also influenced by their level of autonomy and flexibility. Studies have indicated that a greater level of independence and adaptability in one’s job correlates with a reduced absence rate. This may be explained by a greater sense of accountability for one’s work and the ability to adjust plans in light of one’s illness. Furthermore, if a supervisor or leader exhibits restricted conduct, there will be more absences.

    1. Insurance against absence

    Another strategy to lower the expense of absenteeism is to get absence insurance. These can be useful strategies to lower the cost of employee absenteeism in the event that it increases dramatically as a result of illness, (workplace) accidents, or other causes, depending on the region and local laws.

    In summary

    This concludes our guide to workplace absenteeism. The reasons for absentee conduct are numerous, as are the repercussions. The crucial point is that there is nearly never a single instance of high absenteeism. Other factors frequently play a role, such as the belief held by employees that management ignores them, an unfavorable company culture, poor management, or other issues.

    Therefore, the best way to address absenteeism is to incorporate them into a larger human resource plan that also aims to address these problems. This means that rather than standing alone, these interventions ought to be coordinated with improvements made to other HR procedures, such as performance management, training programs, and engagement-boosting initiatives.

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