Absenteeism in the workplace – Impact, causes, & prevention

what is absenteeism in the workplace
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Every employee has to miss work once in a while; on occasion, personal things need to be taken care of during work hours. And while it’s not a requirement (other than for conditions mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act related to family and health, or for jury duty) that companies provide time off from work (paid or unpaid), most do have policies that grant employees some time for excused absences.

But when those days off are too frequent, it becomes a problem and is called absenteeism. And that could be a sign that your organization and work environment need some adjustments before the activity starts impacting the availability and productivity of your workforce, along with the company’s profitability.

Types of absenteeism

Reasons for taking time off from work can be varied, but they generally fit into three categories: approved absences, occasional absences, and chronic absenteeism. 

In 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that over 114,000 part or full-time employees skip out on work on any given workday.

And while it would be difficult to compile a comprehensive list of all the reasons employees miss work, let’s dive a little deeper into these three categories.

Approved absences

If an employee asks for and is given permission to be absent from work, this is an approved absence. Legitimate reasons for this type of absence include earned vacations, holidays, maternity or paternity leave, long-term medical leave, jury duty, and anything that needs to be taken care of during work hours that cannot be scheduled outside of them. 

Occasional employee absences

In addition to approved absences from work, there will be times when an employee needs time off that wasn’t approved in advance. Life happens, and not everything can be planned for ahead of time. Examples of typical occasional absences from work can include sick days, childcare issues, bereavement for a family member or friend, legal issues involving the court, and the age-old standard of car trouble. These are genuinely occasional in that employees don’t abuse the availability of this time off and utilize them only when necessary. Companies (should) plan for workers to need unplanned time off, on occasion. 

Chronic absenteeism

Chronic employee absenteeism refers to times when an employee is out regularly without permission from their employer. While the two categories above are manageable (most of the time) from an employer’s standpoint, chronic absenteeism is not as it disrupts the business’s day-to-day operations. From corporate profits to the morale of other employees, having workers who are constantly MIA creates a headache for everyone. 

If you have employees who are disengaged, call in sick all the time, show up late more often than not, leave early every day, or take extra-long lunch breaks (to name just a few examples of chronic absenteeism), your company has a serious issue on its hand that needs to be dealt with.

The impact of absenteeism

It’s not just that someone won’t be sitting at their desk because they didn’t show up for work; every aspect of your business will be affected. According to Absenteeism: The Bottom-Line Killer, unscheduled absenteeism costs companies roughly $3,600 per year for each hourly worker and $2,650 each year for salaried employees. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation states that absenteeism costs employers $225.8 billion a year in terms of lost productivity. But it’s not only about the money; chronic absenteeism in the workplace negatively impacts employee morale and productivity.

The impacts of absenteeism can generally be broken down into two categories: direct and indirect.

Direct: Wages for employees who aren’t working, overtime costs for those that are, and any replacement/recruiting costs.

Indirect: This has a more significant effect on the company beyond the direct financial costs. Delayed delivery of work, lower-quality work, loss of team morale and engagement, and employee burnout are all indirect costs of chronic absenteeism. 

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“The best way to reduce turnover is to increase engagement. One of the best ways to energize the team about the work they’re doing is to highlight it for the rest of the organization to see.”

9 primary causes of chronic employee absenteeism

Home and family responsibilities are among the top 10 causes of long-term absences and the top 5 causes of short-term absences, but other things usually cause chronic absenteeism. And while discontent can feed discontent (absenteeism -> more work for others -> even more absenteeism), there are usually some primary causes of employee absenteeism in the first place: 

Low employee engagement

When employees don’t feel valued, it’s hard for them to feel engaged at work. Why should they care about the company if the company doesn’t care about them? Treating employees with respect and providing helpful feedback when necessary makes for a healthy work environment.

Lack of a flexible work schedule

While much of the workforce went remote at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, many companies are starting to bring employees back into the office. So after nearly two years of learning to schedule their work/life activities from home, being asked to return to more stringent work hours (and commuting) could turn employees against the “old way” of doing business. They were trusted to manage their time and get their job done on their own, and going back to an inflexible work schedule won’t be boosting morale or engagement anytime soon. 

Mental health issues

The mental well-being of its employees has become a priority for many companies in the last several years, even more so since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Managing Mental Health In The Workforce: A New Role For HR Professionals, “51% of employees reported worse mental health at work since the pandemic began, and 30% of employees were scared to disclose mental health issues for fear of being fired or furloughed.”

One study demonstrated that depression alone is thought to cost companies around $44 billion in lost productivity per year, and about 40% of employees said their company did not provide adequate policies or procedures to address health and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anxiety, depression, or other mental health illnesses can often lead to an employee feeling unwell enough to miss work quite often.

Big Lots is prioritizing mental health — talking to associates about their own mental well-being, how their family is coping, and providing resources for those that might need help. Listen in to their VP of Internal Comms, Jeremy Ball a recent guest on the Culture, Comms & Cocktails podcast

Workplace harassment

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines harassment as “unwelcome conduct based on race, color, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, religion, age, disability, or genetic information,” and sexual harassment is the most prevalent form of harassment in the workplace. A 2018 Hiscox Workplace Harassment Study found that 35% of workers feel they have been harassed at work and that among women, the figure is even higher at 41%. In addition, between 2010 to 2017, employers paid out nearly $1 billion to settle harassment charges. No one wants to work in a hostile work environment. Still, often employees have no option other than to keep their job due to external circumstances, which can lead to chronic absenteeism as they try to avoid harassment. 

Poor leadership

An employee could be taking time off work to escape a bad boss, too. Whether it’s too much micromanaging or not managing at all, poor leadership is often a cause of absenteeism. Research shows that it takes about 22 months for a former employee’s stress level to return to a healthy range after a negative management experience. And according to Gallup, U.S. businesses lose $360 billion each year in lost productivity from employees who are unhappy with their managers.

Employee burnout

Know those employees who are workaholics, who seem never to go home? Gone are the days when this was a benchmark for a “good” employee. When people get pushed to (or past) their limits, through their own fault or someone else’s, their productivity and mental health suffer, leading to more absence from work because of their need to recover. 

Time theft

Chronic absenteeism isn’t necessarily just the missing of full eight-hour days. Taking long lunches and breaks, coming in late, and leaving early are all examples of “time theft.” In effect, absent employees are stealing money, which adds up over a year. A recent Forbes article stated that an average employee steals approximately 4.5 hours per week from their employer. That’s nearly six work weeks per year, costing businesses hundreds of billions of dollars a year worldwide. However, it’s important to note that the article also said that both employees and employers are victims and perpetrators of the practice, so employers need to be aware of it.

Illness and injury

Accidents and sickness happen; it’s how a company responds to the needs of employees when it happens is what’s important. If someone comes down with a bad case of the flu, does it make sense to force them to show up at the office? Not only will their productivity be way down, but they could end up making the entire office sick – meaning the productivity of the whole office is down. When employees feel as though a company doesn’t care about their well-being, it will end up affecting morale and engagement, along with their health.

Job hunting

An unhappy employee may be calling in “sick” a lot because they are looking for a new job. Whether to go to a job interview or meet with a recruiter, they’re going to need time off during “work hours” to land a new gig.

prevent absenteeism

6 ways to prevent absenteeism in the workplace

While it’s not necessarily an easy problem to solve, it’s vital to the success of your organization to work on better managing or reducing employee absenteeism in the workplace. Beyond making sure employees follow the rules laid out in their employment contract, there are many other effective strategies to prevent it before it becomes an even bigger problem. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Implement a wellness program

Stress.org reports that 80% of workers feel stress on the job, and nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress. And when workers are stressed over a prolonged period, it can lead to health issues (heart disease, depression) that, in turn, lead to chronic absenteeism. However, there’s an excellent way to help workers before they get to that point – a wellness program. 

Workplace wellness programs that focus on both health education and lifestyle modifications have the best chance of boosting productivity and employee engagement. They also provide employees with benefits that go well beyond the workplace to succeed in their personal time. From flu clinics to therapy to dietary advice, a wellness program can certainly reduce absenteeism.

A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that “89% of workers at companies that support well-being efforts are more likely to recommend their company as a good place to work.” It’s hard to beat a nearly 90% success rate!

Set a clear employee attendance policy with incentives

An employment contract and handbook are one thing, but are there incentives in place beyond the standard paycheck to ensure everyone shows up for work? Extra vacation days, paid personal days off, maternity/paternity leave, flexible scheduling, bonuses, etc., are all incentives that add value beyond just a paycheck. Attendance policies should be easy to understand, interpret, and distributed to all employees (from CEO to part-time hourly workers). They should cover how much time off is allowed, how to apply for time off, how to record absences and tardiness, and what chronic absenteeism looks like. 

Address unscheduled absences immediately

If you’re starting to see a pattern of specific behavior, the time to address it is now, not later. What could be just a small issue may quickly turn into a significant problem in short order. Doing so will inform them their actions are noticed and that management is concerned. Check in regularly with your employees, and make sure everyone is doing ok. 

Discover the root cause of excessive absenteeism

Understanding the most common causes of absenteeism can help you minimize the time people miss out on work. Is it stress? Overwork or boredom? Workplace bullying? Lack of acknowledgment and/or financial incentives? A personal issue? Knowing what your employees are going through can help you mitigate the problem before it becomes a liability for the company. 

Workplace surveys are a great way to get to understand what is going on with your workforce. We know the feedback from managers to employees helps with morale, but did you know that it works in the other direction, too? Workers who feel they are being heard by management are more likely to like where they work. According to Forbes, a top reason that employees quit their job is that they grow tired of being “overlooked and ignored.” The same is true for chronic absenteeism… who wants to do their best work if their work concerns aren’t being heard?

Flexible scheduling and remote work days

Especially after the working world changed with Covid-19 and everyone started working remotely, allowing for flexible scheduling and some, if not all, remote work days could be one of the best ways to prevent chronic absenteeism. Allowing employees to earn the trust of setting “alternative” schedules that better fit their lives generally makes for a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce. If you hire the right people, you should trust them to do their job on their time. 

Industry-standard salary and benefits

Ensuring you offer your employees industry-standard wages and benefits goes a long way toward keeping your employees motivated and engaged. Especially when many opportunities present themselves during a good economy, you want to ensure your employees aren’t looking elsewhere just for a few more dollars.


Employee absence is always a problem for large and small businesses alike (especially in January and February, we discovered!). You must understand the reasons behind it before you can implement a strategy to prevent it. Reducing absenteeism within your workforce is not only crucial for your profitability but is also vital for the productivity of your workforce.

Build a business case for DEX

As we have detailed, the employee experience is critical to employee retention and satisfaction, but how can you prove that the results will be worth the investment?

Download our guide, a compilation of real-world advice from business leaders who transformed their digital employee experience and built support across the company to achieve their goals. 


What is absenteeism in the workplace?

Absenteeism in the workplace refers to an ongoing pattern of missing or skipping out on work without reason, impacting the availability and productivity of your workforce.

How many days is considered excessive absenteeism?

As every company is different, there is no universal guideline for how many days off is considered excessive absenteeism. But a good definition would be 3 or more unexcused occurrences in a 90-day period. In general, companies should strive for a 1.5% absenteeism rate from their employees. 

What causes employee absenteeism?

Chronic employee absenteeism can be caused by many factors, including but not limited to lack of employee engagement, poor leadership, burnout, workplace harassment, or job-hunting activities.

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