Understanding and Controlling Worker Absenteeism.

Essay by mrbudziszUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, September 2005

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Absenteeism affects every organization in different ways. There seems at times to be no clear culprit and to have no easy cure. Absenteeism does not discriminate and affects individuals no matter their sex, race, or religion. It is important to acknowledge that absenteeism has consequences and most importantly that it costs organizations money. By understanding why employees sometimes choose not to come to work when they are fully able and capable, employers can reduce unnecessary effects of absenteeism.


There are several definitions of absenteeism. It can be as simple as an absence from work or "an individual's unavailability for work when work is available for the individual." Another source used the definition, "any unscheduled time off from work, regardless of whether it is paid or excused." This is the definition I will use for this research paper for two reasons. First it clarifies that the absence is unscheduled.

The two previous definitions do not take into account if the absence is scheduled or unscheduled. This is a big factor when employers deal with absences. Generally, they can plan and prepare for a scheduled absence. On the other hand, when an absence is unexpected and unplanned in advance, an organization can run into problems. Second, this definition adds that the absence may be either paid or excused. An employee may call and be legitimately sick and get still get paid for having a sick day available. This still qualifies as absenteeism, and still would even if the employee was not legitimately sick. It is important to add that absenteeism can be paid, unpaid, excused or not excused to clarify that all fall under the category of absenteeism. Scheduled absences, however, regardless of whether they are paid or excused or not considered to be absenteeism.


Why are employees absent from work? There are many reasons why workers have to miss work. Basically, these reasons fall into two groups--involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary reasons are inevitable and include illness and death in the family. They are out of the control of the employee and are sometimes referred to as certified. The other group of reasons is voluntary or uncertified. These voluntary absences are avoidable and the least desirable of the two. This is because they are not considered to be a legitimate reason as to why the employee missed work. Below I have compiled a chart of involuntary and voluntary reasons. It should be noted that depending on the circumstances surrounding the situation, a reason could be in either category.

Involuntary Reasons (inevitable) Voluntary Reasons (avoidable)

- certified medical illness- certified accident- work related accident- domestic accident- jury duty- funeral- union activities- family reasons- maternity, paternity, and adoption leave- religious reason- military leave - feeling tired- feeling bored- wanting a break- disciplinary suspension- personal reason- business reason- uncertified medical illness- uncertified accident- need a break from stress- transportation problems- weather problems


So what if an employee takes an unscheduled day off of work? What consequences does it have and who does it affect? There are many consequences, both positive and negative. Absenteeism can affect up to "seven distinct though interrelated groups: the individuals themselves, their coworkers, the larger work group, the organization and its management, the union and its leaders, the family, and, finally, society at large."

First, obviously the individual who is absent is affected. There can be several benefits of being absent for an individual. These include taking a break from a stressful job, allowing time for family and allowing time for a hobby. Some times being absent from a job helps to prevent "burn-out." The negative consequences for an individual can be loss in pay and disciplinary procedures for the absence.

Next, coworkers are affected by absenteeism. Taking over an absent employee's job could result in increased job variety and skill development. This could lead to overtime or increased pay for covering duties of those who are not present. The negative consequences could be increased stress due to the increase in workload. Also, increased pay is not always ideal if it comes at the expense of free time for outside activities.

Third, the work group experiences consequences. Absenteeism "can allow people to learn more jobs, thereby creating greater crew flexibility in meeting production challenges brought on by various reasons." On the other hand, the work group can experience decreased productivity and increased accidents on the job. The consequences for management are similar to those of the work group.

Fourth, union officers experience a different situation. The power position of labor leaders can sometimes be strengthened by a moderate rate of absence. On the negative side, where there is higher absence, "union leaders run the risk of losing credibility for being unable to control their own people."

Next, absenteeism has many consequences for the family. Time away from work allows an employee time to deal with family issues such as illness, health, family, or marital problems. For example, if there is a problem with a child, a worker could miss work in order to attend a parent-teacher conference. On the other hand, an absence in work could mean less income for the family and an increase in family conflict if, for example, the absent worker interferes with the routine of his or her spouse.

Lastly, society at large is affected by worker absenteeism. A benefit could be "staying away from a dissatisfying or stressful job can reduce community mental health problems along with their often serious side effects, can reduce various social problems associated with marital relations, and once in a while can even aid in the community political process when, for example, a volunteer city council member misses work to attend an important council meeting." On the negative side, absences can cause increased costs and a loss in productivity. These losses in productivity can affect the GNP, which could ultimately lead to making our country's services or products less competitive in world markets. No matter how one looks at it, absenteeism is expensive and hurts the profits of organizations. Total employer productivity losses due to absenteeism exceed $12 billion annually. This is perhaps an organization's biggest reason for wanted to decrease absenteeism. With all these consequences "it is not surprising that absenteeism has attracted the abundance of research attention that it has."


In order to improve attendance, an attendance policy must be created. It is necessary for all organizations to have a formal attendance policy. This policy should seek to encourage job attendance and discourage uncertified absences. Creating a formal policy may be difficult for an organization if in the past it had a lax attitude toward job absences. By having accepted job absences as the norm, an organization will have to change it's organizational culture before attendance can be improved.

Generally, top management and/or supervisors should develop it. Some companies, however, have included employers in the creation of its attendance policy. This has given a different perspective and at times represented the views of those who will be most affected by the policy.

The policy should be easy to understand and clearly stated so that there are no misunderstandings. It should include provisions, procedures, standards, and guidelines. Aspects such as if and when employees must obtain a doctor's note should be included for clarity. This policy should be communicated to all employees through the employee handbook and also by being posted prominently.

There are several steps that should be followed when creating an effective attendance policy. First, it is necessary to determine the nature of the absenteeism in the organization. In other words, by looking at the specific patterns of absenteeism in one's company, it will help when creating the attendance policy. Absences in an organization vary by geographical location, sex, age, and pay levels of employees. Departments in the same organization can differ when it comes to absences. Management needs to research the absenteeism in its organization in order to get a better picture of the pattern(s) of absent employees. Perhaps even by surveying or interviewing employees, management can better understand the reason behind employee absences. An employer may be surprised to find that his or her "employees may feel that they have the right to a few days off as part of their (unwritten) work contract." This extra effort of trying to understand absenteeism will help management decide on an appropriate "attendance improvement policy."

Second, when creating a policy, management must determine how to encourage job attendance. There are several approaches such as disciplinary, preventative, and corrective measures.

Disciplinary measures are the oldest and most common technique for dealing with employee absences. Managers feel that by imposing stiff penalties on chronic offenders they can improve the situation. These stiff penalties can include lack of pay, decrease in job responsibilities, loss of job duties, unpaid disciplinary leave, or even termination. The termination of an employee can serve as a lesson to other employees.

Preventative measures take into account the most common reasons for employee absenteeism. For example, if an organization finds that employees commonly are absent due to being unhealthy, it can incorporate a wellness strategy. This type of program can focus on issues such as hypertension control, weight loss, stress management, cholesterol testing and nutrition, and smoking cessation. The Chicago Board of Trade has a policy where it will pay $100 a month toward an employee's membership at a health club. Other companies prepare different sports for their employees to plan on. Also, a preventative measure may involve making counseling or help programs available to employees with problems pertaining to family or alcohol.

Corrective measures look at issues pertaining to job attendance. This could involve training supervisors on how to deal with absence-prone employees or how to encourage attendance. Other corrective efforts include implementing reward systems. Job attendance rewards and incentives can be tangible or intangible in form. The success of the reward system can depend "on the type and frequency of the reward and the way it is communicated and granted." Below is a sample of reward programs used by organizations.

-cash bonus on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis

-profit sharing based on attendance record

-time off for near perfect or perfect attendance

-sick leave bonus in terms of a payout for unused sick days

-retirement benefits for unused sick days in the form of benefits or lump sum payment

-lotteries for employees with near perfect or perfect attendance

-recognition in company newsletter or card sent to the employee's home

-special ceremony party for employees with perfect or near perfect attendance

Next, it is necessary to define "absence" when creating a policy. This may sound simple or unimportant but research has shown the definition can vary among employees. Unless the definintion of "absence" is expressed to employees, they have no way of knowing for sure. For example, a company may define an absence as "unscheduled time off of work that is less than 4 hours of the total workday." Some employees in the organization may not have been aware of this and had left before completing 4 hours, thinking that they would not be considered absent. The definition should be explicitly expressed so that there is no question as to what constitutes an absence. Also, employers should define what is considered and "excused" and "unexcused" absence. By doing both of these, companies will be better prepared when problems arise and will treat employees fairly.

Lastly, when creating an attendance policy employers should "determine what constitutes excessive absenteeism." Will excessive absenteeism occur when an employee is absent more than 3 times a month? Or will it be when an employee exceeds his or her allotted sick and or paid time off days? Another approach is to make a ruling on a case-by-case basis. The idea behind this is perhaps an employee has an extenuating circumstance that is legitimate. By determining what constitutes excessive absenteeism, an employer will be ready when faced with a situation pertaining to this issue.


Once upper management approves the attendance policy, it is necessary that it be communicated to all employees at the organization. This is not the end of the process as monitoring is necessary. Management should keep detailed records of absences and review them periodically. The information recorded should include name, department, date, reason, and duration of each absence. By accurately recording this information, management can "compute absence rates and thus determine the extent of the problem in the organization." This attendance information can also help pinpoint problem employees, common reasons for absence, and other critical problems. If an employee is aware that his or her attendance is being monitored, it may also affect absenteeism.

There are several ways to calculate absenteeism rates:

Number of worker days lost through job absence during month X 100

(average number of employees) X (number of working days)

number of employees absent during period X 100

number of employees on payroll during period

number of worker days of absence during period

number of employees on payroll during period

By using a formula, an organization can calculate its absenteeism rates on a regular basis and determine if the attendance policy is effective. By periodically analyzing the absenteeism data, a company can adjust its attendance policy in order to lower its rate of absenteeism. A company may see an increase in absenteeism rates at certain times of the year and find the culprit to be such activities as the opening of dear-hunting season and home sports games.


Absenteeism affects all organizations in usually unfavorable ways. It is necessary that employers learn about absenteeism in their own company and understand it's pattern and why it happens. After doing this research the next step is to write a clear and easily understood policy. By having clear provisions, procedures, standards, and guidelines that include a definition of "absence" and a plan for encouraging attendance, an organization will be on it's way to creating a successful policy. Ideally, this will lower the number of unexcused and unplanned absences in the organization. The next step is to communicate the policy to employees so that they are aware of what is expected of them and of the consequences for absences. Lastly, by recording and analyzing employee absences, an organization can amend its policy and pinpoint problems in the company.

The key to lowering absenteeism is taking time to study the organization and write an effective attendance policy. Absenteeism is very costly and this extra effort to decrease it will hopefully pay off in the future.