Absenteeism in the Workplace

sick woman in bed talking on the phone
••• Tom Merton / OJO Images / Getty Images

What is absenteeism? It’s not simply having to miss work occasionally for a day or two. While your employer’s definition may vary, in general absenteeism refers to a pattern of missing work.

Absenteeism does not include excused absences, when an employer has granted an employee permission to miss work.

The Cost of Absenteeism

Absenteeism is costly for both employees and employers. The employee may not be paid for taking excessive time off or may even lose their job for calling in sick or for other absences. In fact, because most employees in the U.S. are considered employed at will, employers can fire them for almost any reason—or for no reason at all.

Unless you are protected by a union agreement or a specific contract, you run the risk that your employer will decide to replace you permanently if you miss too many days of work.

Absenteeism also affects employers’ bottom lines. Absent employees impact an organization’s productivity, revenue, and costs.

Absenteeism contributes to employee turnover, increased labor costs when replacement workers need to be hired, and to other management and hiring costs. The Integrated Benefits Institute, a nonprofit research organization, reports that employee absences related to illness cost the U.S. economy $530 billion a year.

What’s an Excused Absence?

All employers expect employees to need some time off from work occasionally, and many employers have company policies that provide for paid leave under approved circumstances. Other employers don’t provide pay but do allow employees to take time off when they need it.

However, employers are not obligated by law to give time off for vacation or for sick days other than under those conditions mandated by the ​Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). They are obligated to allow employees to perform jury duty, but there are no federal laws mandating pay for service. (Although some states have their own legal provisions.)

Regardless of legal requirements however, most employers will excuse absences from work for certain reasons, such as vacation, medical leave, or bereavement. Proof of your leave (a jury duty notice, a doctor’s note, an obituary, etc.) is usually sufficient documentation for an employer to excuse absence from work. However, employers can spot trends and may keep track of how often an employee is absent and what their reasons are.

Occasional Absences

Most employers allow a certain number of days off for excused absences. These days are sometimes allocated as flexible days to be used for any reason or as vacation or sick time.

Some employers require that Paid Time Off (PTO) be used when an employee is sick. This is meant to encourage employees to come in whenever possible. However, employees often feel obligated to come to work while sick and end up spreading germs and illness to their coworkers. This can develop into office-wide absenteeism and low productivity.

Chronic Absenteeism Disciplinary Actions

When a person is absent from work on a regular basis, it is considered chronic absenteeism. This can be a violation of an employee’s contract and may lead to job suspension or termination.

Chronic absenteeism does not include occasional excused absences such as unexpected health or personal issues.

Chronic absenteeism is often an indicator of poor employee performance, poor morale, workplace hazards, a medical condition, or psychological problems. Causes can include personal or family illnesses, injury, family or personal obligations, harassment in the workplace, a heavy workload, bullying, depression, lack of commitment, job searching, or family circumstances. However, illness or injury is the most common reason cited by most workers.

How Employers Might Respond to Absenteeism Issues

What happens if absenteeism becomes a problem at your company? Your employer might take one of several actions.

  • Performance improvement plans addresses productivity and performance issues. When well-designed, a performance improvement plan helps facilitate discussion between an employee and management about the employee’s contributions toward team goals and help them get back on track. 
  • One-on-one performance reviews give the employer an opportunity to address absenteeism issues, offer the opportunity for employees to self-evaluate their productivity, and can create a positive dialogue between the employee and the supervisor. Performance reviews and other types of employee meetings can resolve obstacles and lay the groundwork for decreased absenteeism in the future.
  • Creating clear sick leave and excused absence policies helps to eradicate any gray area surrounding taking days off.
  • Incentive plans can also help increase morale and encourage employees to come to work every day.

Key Takeaways

Absenteeism Generally Refers to Repeated, Unexcused Absences: Employers have difference policies regarding time off from work. Consult your employee handbook or HR policies to learn more.

A Pattern of Unexcused Absences Can Get You Fired: Most workers in the U.S. are employed at will, which means that they can be terminated from employment at any time, for any reason.

Most Employers Will Provide Leave for Certain Circumstances: These include vacation, sick leave, bereavement, etc. Depending on the employer and the circumstances, leave may be paid or unpaid.

Article Sources

  1. National Conference of State Legislatures. “At-Will Employment – Overview.” Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.

  2. Integrated Benefits Institute. “IBI Costs of Poor Health Infographic.” Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.

  3. The U.S. Department of Labor. “Sick Leave.” Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.

  4. Employment Law Handbook. “Jury Duty Leave Laws.” Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.