Excessive Absenteeism in the Workplace: What It Is, How to Deal With It

Andrew Buck's avatar Andrew Buck June 13, 2023

Excessive absenteeism is a big problem. But dealing with it is easier said than done.

There are many difficult questions for managers. How do we define “excessive” employee absences? What kind of absences are normal, and how much employee absenteeism is acceptable? When should I talk to staff about their absenteeism, and what do I say?

This is what we’ll address in this post. Read on for everything you need to know to handle employee attendance problems in your business.

Want to learn more about Absenteeism, its causes, consequences, and how to deal with it? We cover all of that and more in our ultimate guide for businesses and HR professionals.

What is Excessive Absenteeism?

Excessive absenteeism is when an employee is regularly absent from work, above an acceptable standard.

A few absences here and there are understandable. We all get sick, unexpected issues arise from time to time that get in the way of work. In a perfect world, there would be no unexpected absences, but it’s not a perfect world.

The issue with defining “excessive” absenteeism is that there is no clear standard for what is acceptable or not. It’s up to the business owner, manager or team leader to decide.

For some, one or two unexcused absences may be considered excessive. Others may be more lenient. Some may also take absenteeism to include absences with a legitimate reason, if these absences stack up too much.

How to Differentiate Between Regular and Excessive Absenteeism

Let’s help distinguish excessive employee absenteeism and “regular” or “normal” absenteeism.

There’s no universal figure for this. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) defines excessive absenteeism as two or more unexcused absences within a 30-day period. Every business doesn’t need to follow the same definition, but it’s a good ballpark figure to start with.

Businesses should also consider the circumstances surrounding employee absences when deciding whether or not they’re excessive. Take these three examples.

  • Employee A misses work once a month. They don’t give any notice, and don’t have any noticeable medical issues or exigent circumstances. When questioned, they just shrug and say “I didn’t feel well.”
  • Employee B misses work two times a month. They give notice to their manager, but usually right around the time they’re supposed to start their shift. The reasons vary – sometimes an illness, sometimes they say that a personal matter came up.
  • Employee C misses work an average of four-five times a month. They give as much notice as possible, and each time they have a legitimate reason – when they return to work they’ll have a doctor’s note or some other form of evidence to prove why they were off work.

In each case, the number of absences differs, but they are all situations that can probably be considered excessive absenteeism, and should be followed up.

The first employee makes very little effort, and doesn’t seem to care a lot about turning up, though their absence rate is the lowest.

The second may have legitimate reasons for being absent, but the regularity of their absences is something that needs to be addressed.

For the third, there’s no doubt that they are actually unwell or have legitimate matters to deal with. But an absence rate as high as this (taking 20 monthly working days as the norm, they’re averaging nearly a 25% absence rate) is still unacceptable long-term.

How you deal with it, and the content of the conversation you have with each employee will differ. But all three require action.

Average Absenteeism Rate in the Workplace

You can expect a certain level of excused and unexcused absences in a business.

People get sick, people have to deal with family emergencies and personal matters from time to time. The key is understanding what a normal level of absenteeism is.

The average sickness absence rate in the UK is 2.6%. In the US, the average absence rate for full-time and salaried workers is 3.6%.

These numbers show the average percentage of working days a worker calls off or doesn’t attend, for any unexpected reason (not counting vacation, scheduled absences like jury duty, medical appointments, etc).

This gives you an idea of what is normal or acceptable. Above this rate, we start to get into the range of excessive absenteeism. But be sure to consider the circumstances, as shown in our example earlier.

What Causes Above Average Absenteeism?

The first step to conquering absenteeism is to understand what causes it. The best approach, by far, is to create a culture where absenteeism is unlikely to happen in the first place, because you’ve avoided most (or all) of the common causes of absenteeism.

Let’s look at the most common reasons for excessive absenteeism now.


Most cases of absenteeism are legitimate health reasons. People get sick or injured, and they call off work.

This is normal, to a degree. You can expect some level of unscheduled absences from your employees, as they don’t know ahead of time that they’re going to be sick.

But even excused absences like sick leave can become absenteeism if they happen too regularly. Somewhere in the range of 2-4% is a normal rate of sickness-based absenteeism. Those who are sick more often should be talked to, not necessarily from a disciplinary angle, but a collaborative one where you discuss how they can take better care of their health.

Wondering how much sick leave is a normal amount? This post takes a look into the averages.

External Circumstances

Circumstances in employees’ personal lives are another common cause of absences. For some, these circumstances happen a lot more than others.

Like sickness, this is not necessarily something where you need to take disciplinary action right away. But if personal issues come up far more frequently than with other employees, it warrants addressing.

High Workload/Pressure

An excessive workload or too much pressure is a big cause of stress and burnout, and also absenteeism.

This may manifest itself in health issues, which leads the employee to call off sick. But it could also just make the employee feel stressed to the point where they call in sick or don’t show up.

Difficult Work Conditions

Similar to above, conditions at work can cause an abundance of stress and an unscheduled absence.

This could be related to the working environment – perhaps it’s uncomfortable, unhealthy or negative, and leads the employee to call off or not show up.

Dissatisfaction at Work

Low job satisfaction is another common cause. When an employee does not enjoy what they do, or they have specific areas in their job they’re not happy with, they’re much more likely to find any reason they can to take the day off, excused or not.

Quiet Quitting

Finally, above average absenteeism may be a sign of “quiet quitting”. This is when an employee doesn’t actually resign, but reduces their effort to the absolute minimum necessary. Quiet quitting usually occurs when employees are burned out, unhappy with their circumstances at work, or for whatever reason they simply don’t care about the job anymore.

Quiet quitters generally do as little as they need to keep their jobs, which can include attendance rate. If the employee feels they can get away with not showing up 1-2 times per month, they will quite often do so.

The Impact of Excessive Absences

Excessive absenteeism has a big cost, both to businesses and individuals.

For the business, absenteeism has a quantifiable financial cost, in things like sick leave, cost of replacement workers and lost productivity.

The actual cost of absenteeism varies from source to source. Some estimate that absenteeism costs US companies as much as $3,600-$3,900 per employee per year.

Data on the cost of sickness in the workplace, via IBI

Then there is the less quantifiable impact of absenteeism, which is to the individuals in a team. Other employees are forced to work harder and longer, damaging employee morale, and team members can become stressed and burned out from the extra workload to compensate for the absent employee.

There’s even an impact on the absent employee themselves, as they are more likely to feel disengaged from their job, and may face disciplinary action or termination eventually.

Excessive absenteeism may cost US businesses as much as $3,600-$3,900 per employee per year.

How to Talk To Employees About Excessive Absenteeism

Now the key part: how to address an employee’s attendance.

Thinking back to the examples we raised earlier, you need to treat each situation differently. Consider if the employee has a legitimate reason for their repeated absences, and how often this has been occurring.

For an employee who is often sick, you’ll want to discuss how they can take better care of their health.

It’s not always possible – some people unfortunately have chronic health conditions they can’t control. But in some cases, you can help the employee live a healthier lifestyle that leads them to being sick and missing work less often.

In situations where there is no obvious reason for an employee’s repeated absences, you will generally want to take a harder line. Explain your company’s attendance policy (this should be written down in your employee handbook), and explain to the employee that disciplinary actions may take place if their attendance doesn’t improve.

However; don’t assume anything. You don’t want to accuse employees straight away of faking being sick. There are often circumstances you don’t know about under the surface. Treat each employee with compassion and an open mind, at first.

Whenever considering disciplinary action in your workplace, make sure you do it by the book and consider employment law. Some locations require a number of steps to take place before you can dismiss an employee. You also need to ensure you’re not impinging on the employee’s rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), if you’re a US-based business.

When to Address It

As for when to address employee absenteeism, there is one right answer: as soon as possible.

Absenteeism gets more difficult to deal with the longer it goes on. It may form a habit for the employee that’s hard to break, and also may lead to stronger feelings of disengagement or resentment, which are hard to turn around.

You don’t necessarily need to take disciplinary action as soon as someone misses more than two days in a month. But as soon as you notice a pattern of absenteeism, you should have a word with the employee, as long as you always come from a place of compassion and understanding.

A friendly discussion like this is often enough to identify the root cause of their absenteeism, which you can then address. It also shows caring for your employees, which helps you build a more positive work environment.

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The Best Approach: Create a Culture That Prevents High Absenteeism

The best way to reduce absenteeism is to prevent it from becoming a problem in the first place. It’s hard to reverse excessive absenteeism, or to re-engage unhappy employees. It’s easier to create a positive company culture and deal with issues before they grow out of control.

Foster positivity and cooperation in your workplace, and ensure your employees are happy, healthy and fulfilled in their jobs. This invariably leads to a lower absence rate on its own, and makes it easier to deal with those with excessive absences.

Also, remember that a 0% absence rate is not the goal. If your organization’s absence rate is zero, there’s probably a bigger problem at play, as employees may be afraid to call in sick or take a day off.

This is called presenteeism, and is another billion-dollar problem for today’s workforce.

If you do it right, you should see a low, but normal absence rate in your business. This is a sign of a healthy, high-performing and sustainable team.

Andrew Buck's avatar

Andrew Buck

Andrew is the content manager at Flamingo. He has managed teams in multiple industries, for both physical and remote businesses, and has experience dealing with the ins and outs of HR and leave management on a daily basis.

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