What is absenteeism, and why should you measure it?

25 Mar 24 | Blog

Absenteeism refers to a pattern of unplanned time off from work, often due to sickness or other personal reasons. It can be both the cause of organisational issues (damaging productivity, for example) and the symptom of organisational issues too – like an overstretched workforce. 

How do you define absenteeism?

Absenteeism, meaning a high level of unplanned absences in one period, is largely reserved for situations where employees’ time off was unplanned and/or unapproved. Obviously, sometimes unplanned absences are unavoidable: due to illness or family emergencies, for example. But when it becomes a pattern, that’s absenteeism. 

What is the difference between absence and absenteeism?

Absences are inevitable: life happens. But if an employee routinely misses work without warning, and for dubious reasons, then it could be considered absenteeism. Line managers should be aware of long-term health or familial circumstances which might lead to absences – so those situations aren’t relevant here.

What is the absenteeism formula?

The absenteeism formula itself is fairly simple: find the number of unplanned absences in a certain time period, divide it by the total number of days in that period, and times it by 100. You’ll end up with an absenteeism percentage. 

The complicating factor is defining ‘unplanned absences’ in your team – as mentioned above, you need to factor in personal circumstances and what wiggle room you’ll allow. 

After all, if an employee’s child is routinely sent home due to illness, causing a series of unplanned absences, that doesn’t necessarily mean that worker is disengaged or unproductive. It’s key not to penalise people for situations out of their control – instead, try to find ways to support them.

What are the types of absenteeism?

“Chronic absenteeism” is a problem, but to understand what drives it, we need to first understand the different types of absence itself:

  • Approved absences: annual leave, parental leave, and other agreed-upon days off
  • Unplanned absences: sickness, childcare issues, bereavements – anything unexpected
  • Unapproved absences: not turning up without a valid reason, or unapproved holiday
  • Chronic absences: a pattern unplanned and/or unapproved absences over one period

What are the causes of absenteeism?

What causes absenteeism? Let’s break it down into ‘unplanned’ and ‘unapproved’:

Reasons for unplanned absences

  • Unmanaged or unreported health conditions
  • Stress and/or mental health challenges
  • Practical reasons: childcare or commuting difficulties

When understanding a pattern of unplanned absences, open communication and common sense is needed. Is there an external problem, or an internal problem? Either way, you can take steps to support the employee in question – whether it’s directing them to resources to manage their mental health, assessing their workload, or allowing flexibility on when/where they work.

Reasons for unapproved absences

  • Lack of motivation or disengagement 
  • Poor relationship with their line manager
  • Mismatch between employee and the organisation

If an employee repeatedly refuses to give you a valid reason for missing work, there could be a few things going on. They could be so disengaged that they don’t mind jeopardising their role, feel uncomfortable opening up to their line manager, or simply not be a good fit for the team. Either way, you still need to come to them with curiosity and understanding.

Is absenteeism bad?

Why is absenteeism a problem? Because it impacts your organisation’s productivity and profitability – with some research suggesting the cost of absenteeism can amount to 8.7% of pay. And as you’re literally getting less time out of your employee, that follows.

But there’s also the knock-on effects to consider. An absent teammate is demoralising and frustrating, especially when you’re having to cover for them – and it can sometimes point to a broader organisational problem that’s costing you. So yes, however you look at it, absenteeism is bad.

How can you measure absenteeism?

We’ve talked about the absenteeism formula, and that’s something you can do manually. But what do you do with your absenteeism percentage when you have it? How do you know what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’? 

We’ve got a suggestion…

Absence rate benchmarks

By looking more specifically at sick days, you can benchmark your organisation against equivalent organisations – which is key, as some industries are going to be prone to higher or lower levels of absence. Once you’ve identified if you’re particularly above or below benchmark, you can dig deeper to find out why.

Qlearsite Pro for absence metrics & benchmarking

Our platform is built for data-led leadership. We find out the stories hidden in your HR data, and help you investigate the reasons behind your metrics. And absence is one of those: identify a higher-than-average rate of sick days, see which departments, demographics, or tenure groups that’s driving that metric, and understand what needs to be changed.

You can use our benchmarking platform – including attrition and gender ratio benchmarking! – for free. Sign up today:

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