What is Absenteeism? (Definition, Causes, Cost and Solutions)

Andrew Buck August 22, 2023

Chronic or habitual absenteeism is a serious problem for businesses looking to build a positive, healthy and productive work culture.

An average of 1.58 million sickness-related absences were recorded each month in the US in 2022. That adds up to 19 million missed workdays for the whole year, and huge losses in productivity to US businesses.

The effects of absenteeism go even deeper than just missed work days and lost productive hours, however. So if you’re running a business, or in a leadership role in a team, you’ll want to know all you can about absenteeism in the workplace, how it happens, and how to prevent it from becoming a problem.

What is Absenteeism?

Absenteeism is when someone is repeatedly absent from work, more than what is reasonable to expect.

Absenteeism can apply to anything where someone has scheduled attendance, most commonly used in reference to work and school. We’ll be focusing primarily on absenteeism in the workplace. This affects part-time and full-time employees, shift workers and salaried employees.

Absenteeism often involves unplanned, unannounced absences, without a good reason. Not always, though. Some may consider chronic sickness-related absences as absenteeism, even though the employee has a legitimate reason for being off work.

The same goes for absences over a reasonable amount for employees on unlimited PTO, even though these are often planned absences.

Are All Employee Absences Classified as Absenteeism?

So does it count as absenteeism every time an employee is off work?

No. Absences are a normal part of work. People get sick, unexpected issues come up, and people also need to take time off every now and then to rest and recharge.

Absences that don’t apply for absenteeism include:

Employee absenteeism is when these absences are habitual, or over a reasonable amount, such as when employees regularly call in sick, or regularly ask for personal days.

It can also include habitual lateness, leaving work early, or extended breaks during the workday.

What’s the Threshold Where Absences Become Absenteeism?

There’s no defined point where an acceptable absence rate turns into excessive absenteeism. This is why it is such a tricky thing to diagnose and address. Where do you draw the line between someone who has legitimate health issues and someone whose low attendance has to be addressed?

The definition of absenteeism, too, is not the same for everyone. Some businesses or leaders only consider employee absenteeism to be unplanned, unexpected and unexcused absences.

For others, it includes unscheduled absences with a legitimate reason (e.g. health issues), when they become habitual or above a reasonable rate. This is because, while it’s not necessarily wrong for the employee to be absent from work, it’s not sustainable for a business to operate with employees who are chronically absent from their scheduled shifts.

So it’s up to the business to decide what is normal and acceptable in terms of absences, and when it becomes a problem that needs to be addressed.

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What is a Normal Absenteeism Rate?

Absences happen in all businesses – there’s no escaping this, unless you replace your entire human workforce with AI.

In the UK in 2022, the average sickness absence rate was 2.6%. That means, on average, workers took 2.6 days off per 100 scheduled working days. The average number of days lost per worker was 5.7 days per year.

The average absence rate in the US, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is 3.6% for full-time and salary workers.

Averages vary in different countries. A study by Small Business Prices found Israel had the lowest absenteeism rate, at 3.9 days per year, while German workers averaged 16.3 days off per year.

It’s hard to put an exact figure on what a normal and acceptable absence rate is, but generally speaking around 2% or lower is healthy and normal.

Is a Low Absenteeism Rate a Good Thing?

It might seem like a lower absenteeism rate is always a good thing, but that’s not necessarily the case.

If you legitimately have few absences, that’s great. But many times, lower than normal absenteeism happens for the wrong reasons.

The business may put pressure on employees not to call in sick, or may not offer paid sick leave. In both cases, employees often come into work while unwell, because they fear being reprimanded or losing pay.

This becomes a whole new problem, called presenteeism. Presenteeism is when employees are present too often, even when they have legitimate reasons for being off work, such as sickness or injury.

This is a problem because the employee performs at a lower standard or capacity than usual, takes longer to get better, and may also infect others in the workplace.

The lost productivity from the employee coming into work unwell outweighs what you would have lost had they simply taken sick leave and stayed home.

If your business has low absenteeism, it may be that your team is incredibly fit and healthy and rarely gets sick. But it could also be presenteeism which, like absenteeism, needs to be addressed.

Learn More: dive deeper into Presenteeism, its cost to employers, and how to handle it, in this post.

How Absenteeism Affects Businesses

There is a quantifiable cost of absenteeism. And it’s big.

A study by Circadian found that absenteeism was costing US companies $3,600 per hourly employee per year, and $2,650 per salaried employee per year.

The cost is broken down into the cost of sick leave paid to absent employees, replacement workers/overtime pay to other employees and administrative costs.

A 2015 report from the CDC claims that productivity losses due to absenteeism in the US add up to $225.8 billion annually, or $1,685 per employee.

The Integrated Benefits Institute estimates the cost of health-related workplace absenteeism even higher, at $575 billion per year for US employers, $3,900 per employee. This includes the cost of sick leave, impaired performance, workers compensation and Family and Medical Leave.


These are the somewhat quantifiable costs. There are additional costs that are harder to measure, such as the impact on company culture, collaboration, productivity, employee engagement and retention, which are all consequences of higher than normal absenteeism.

How Absenteeism Affects Individuals

Absenteeism doesn’t just affect the business. It also affects individuals in the workplace.

For absentees, effects include: 

It also affects other individuals in the workplace. Coworkers of absentees need to take on a higher workload to compensate for their absence, which can lead to overwork, employee burnout, and overall job dissatisfaction.

Absenteeism can lead to conflicts with coworkers, collaborative or cooperative issues, and an increased risk of accidents due to lower engagement and increased workload.

It can even affect managers and people in leadership positions on an individual level, by the pressure put on them to deal with a habitually absent employee (who they may also have close personal relationships with, making it difficult emotionally when disciplinary actions are required).

Most Common Causes of Absenteeism in the Workplace

It’s important to understand that absenteeism is not always a conscious decision on the part of an employee.

Sometimes that is the case – an employee decides that the job is not important to them, and chooses to call in sick or not turn up to work.

But more often, the employee would rather not become an absentee. Yet a deeper issue causes them to regularly call in sick or miss work.

Causes of absenteeism are sometimes treatable. Sometimes, in the case of chronic health issues, they are harder to address.

Here are some of the most common causes of absenteeism in the workplace:

How to Prevent Absenteeism

The best way to reduce employee absenteeism is to prevent it, rather than dealing with it after it’s already become a problem.

Businesses should understand that there is always the potential for absenteeism to occur. As such, they should create a workplace culture that helps prevent the issue from coming up in the first place.

There are a number of good practices to follow that help prevent absenteeism. Let’s take a quick look at these now.

Provide (and encourage) sick leave

It may sound counterintuitive, but providing employees with paid sick leave can help reduce absenteeism.

Absenteeism is often a result of chronic health conditions. These happen when minor health issues are not addressed, and grow into something more substantial.

If employees have paid sick leave available, they’re more likely to get the rest they need to recover from health issues, and avoid long-term, chronic illnesses.

It’s not enough to just offer sick leave, though. You need to encourage employees to take it, and let them know that they won’t be perceived as bad workers if they take sick days from time to time.

Further Reading: Why one third of US adults didn’t take a sick day in the last 12 months.

Build a safe and healthy workplace

A healthy workplace will help reduce the number of injuries and illnesses that occur to your staff.

You don’t need to do anything groundbreaking – just follow normal health and safety practices. Keep your workplace clean and well-ventilated, train employees on how to be safe at work, and encourage employees to stay away from work if they’re unwell.

Encourage employees to take regular vacations

Vacation time helps keep employees fresh, motivated and engaged. It helps prevent burnout, and gives employees time to spend with their loved ones or on things that are important to them in their personal lives.

Too many companies, particularly in the US, don’t offer enough vacation time. But the money and productive hours they save by being stingy with their PTO policy is counteracted by the loss in productivity and cost of higher absenteeism.

A lot of companies do offer enough PTO, but employees don’t take all the time available to them, out of pressure, workload concerns or too much friction in the request process. So don’t just offer vacation time, actually encourage employees to take it.

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Offer employee wellness benefits

Employee wellness programs can help employees stay healthy, physically and mentally. 

This can range from offering healthy food at work, to paid gym memberships, mental health resources and healthcare. The choice of a flexible work schedule can also be a powerful benefit to offer to promote employee wellness.

Learn More: What data says about the best Employee Wellness Initiatives for your business.

Manage employees’ workload

Take care to manage the workload given to employees. You might want to push them to get more done, but if you push this too far, it can have a lot of negative consequences.

These consequences include reduced motivation, absenteeism, burnout, and ultimately the loss of staff who were previously good performers.

Take care not to put too much on their plate, and regularly touch base with employees to ensure that they’re not taking on more that they can handle.

Offer remote/hybrid work

Many cases of absenteeism are a direct result of a long and tiring commute. In big cities especially, staff often have to sit in traffic for long hours or spend a lot of money on transport just to get to and from work. This often leads to lateness, or staff deciding to call in sick and stay home.

Then there are issues at home, or the desire to spend more time around family and loved ones, which causes a lot of absences.

These issues can all be prevented by offering staff the ability to work from home. They don’t need to commute, saving a lot of time and money, and can spend time around their family without always needing to take a sick day or personal day.

Address motivation and morale issues early

Low employee morale or motivation builds slowly, not all at once. It’s easier to address in its early stages, but when it gets to the point where low engagement is causing absenteeism, it’s often too late and too embedded to change.

Managers and leaders should stay on top of this, and address any issues when they first become evident. Talk to employees, be compassionate, and find out what’s causing the problem. By doing this, you can usually fix the problem before it grows out of control.

Recognize good performance/celebrate wins

Low employee engagement and motivation often happen when managers only point out the negatives to employees.

Many employees feel that their mistakes or shortcomings are singled out, but their leaders never recognize the good things they do.

Make it a point to point out good performance, not just bad. Also, celebrate “wins” in the business, big and small. This helps build an environment of positivity, where employees are more motivated and more engaged.

Foster a positive work environment

Do whatever you can do to build and foster a positive environment and workplace culture.

You can do this by promoting positivity and compassion with how you deal with employees, and building a culture that’s inclusive and welcoming to all.

Prevent any kind of inter-office politics, harassment or bullying, and make your organization a safe and positive place to work.

Lead by example

Finally, to get buy-in from those lower on the ladder, those in leadership positions should act as they want to see from others.

If leaders or managers are often absent or late, it’s hard to convince other employees to do the right thing. Managers should be held accountable the same way as other employees are, and held even to a higher standard.

How to Treat or Respond to Absenteeism

The first step to treating and reducing absenteeism in the workplace is addressing it. You need to know that there is a problem before you can address the problem.

The next step is to understand why it’s happening. It’s generally due to one of the root causes listed above.

Identify whether it’s an issue with a particular employee, or a team-wide issue. Is it simply one person who is habitually unwell and absent from work, or is there a pattern of absenteeism throughout your team, indicative of a larger workplace culture problem?

If it’s one employee who is consistently late or absent, sit them down and have an open discussion as to what the issue is, and what can be done about it.

If the problem is due to pressure or workload, for example, do what you can to reduce this and alleviate the issue.

Company-wide absenteeism is more difficult to deal with, as you generally need to turn around the whole company culture.

It could simply be due to the company’s vacation/sick leave policies being too strict. This is an easy fix – don’t be afraid to be more generous in allowing paid time off.

While you ideally want to solve issues and keep employees involved in the business, sometimes you do need to initiate disciplinary action, and even go down the road of termination if it gets too bad. This is the last resort, but necessary in order to avoid absenteeism from becoming the norm.

Related: How to Handle Sick Leave Abuse in Your Company

Prevent Chronic Absenteeism and Build a More Positive Workplace

Absenteeism is a problem in many workplaces. A lot of sources show it getting worse since COVID-19 as well, due in part to health issues related to “long COVID”, and in part to wider problems with low motivation, mental health and stress with workers today.

For most businesses, particularly those with a large workforce, lowering absenteeism rate is one of the top things you can do to boost productivity and profitability. Remove chronic absenteeism and you’ll get far more productive hours, coupled with lower expenses, and a more positive overall workplace.

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