What is excessive absenteeism at work?

Megan Thompson · September 27, 2021

When does an employee’s attendance record become a cause for concern? If you’ve picked up on an employee showing signs of excessive absenteeism it may be necessary to intervene.

There are many reasons an employee might take time off work, from bone fide holiday entitlement to short-term sickness or longer-term health issues. Even a confusion over shift patterns can cause an employee to accidentally miss a day from work.

For employers, it’s unauthorised absences that can seriously harm a business, largely because there’s no plan to cover the workload of the absent employee. The odd day’s staff absence may not cause too much of an issue, but excessive absenteeism can wreak havoc on a business in several ways.

So, what is excessive absenteeism and what can employers do about it?

What is absenteeism? A definition

Absenteeism refers to time away from work without any good reason. On absence from work, ACAS (The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), says, “unauthorised absence is when an employee doesn’t come into work, gives no reason, and doesn’t contact their employer.”

It extends beyond acceptable days away from the office for legitimate reasons, such as scheduled annual leave, occasional illness, and family emergencies. Unauthorised absences can include persistent long lunches, late starts and regularly slipping off early, as well as full days or weeks AWOL* without reporting why.
*Absent without official leave

Employers expect there to be a limited amount of absenteeism for legitimate reasons. But any unauthorised absences should ring alarm bells, especially if it grows into a persistent problem for a particular employee.

So, the big question is, when does the number of unauthorised absences cross the line? And if it happens just the once, is that OK?

excessive absenteeism

When is absenteeism excessive?

Genuine unplanned absences are part of daily life. Workers are people after all, and life can get complicated from time to time.

Employers do need to be flexible but when is intervention required?

There are no hard and fast rules to determine when absenteeism becomes excessive. It’s up to individual employers to determine this in their rules on attendance. But even a single incident should be a red flag that there’s a problem that needs to be resolved. It could indicate an employee needs some support, a change in hours, or even some unpaid leave.

Big corporations efficiently track absences and have policies in place to deal with those outside of the norm. Sophisticated HR systems will automatically flag managers or HR professionals when absences occur and when they become a problem.

However, many small to medium-sized businesses do not have such highly developed HR systems in place. It means persistent and unauthorised absences may be harder to identify.

The sooner unauthorised absences are picked up, the quicker a problem can be understood and a solution found.

One important point to remember – not all cases of absenteeism fit into the same category, and each should be dealt with according to individual circumstances. The trick is to quickly identify the cause so it can be dealt with appropriately.

When is absence authorised?

There are many situations where leave from work is authorised. These include:

  • Annual leave
  • Sick leave
  • Compassionate leave
  • Maternity/paternity leave
  • Unpaid leave
  • Time off for medical appointments
  • Sabbatical or career break
  • Voluntary work
  • Training
  • Caring responsibilities or family-related leave
  • Jury service or other public duties

What are the main causes of unauthorised leave?

There are lots of reasons employees may take time off work without clearing it with their employer first. Causes can range from genuine struggles, such as mental ill-health, to bereavement, illnesses or family emergencies.

The most common causes of unauthorised absence stem from:

  • Bullying in the workplace
  • Mental ill-health
  • Management issues, such as disagreements with management decisions or negative interactions with leadership
  • Travel problems
  • Family/personal issues
  • Workload/stress/burnout
  • Demotivation/low morale
  • Bereavement
  • Refused annual leave

Fear of Covid can also now be added to the list.

The impact of excessive absenteeism

Excessive absenteeism in the workplace influences both employers and employees. For employers it means lost productivity, additional costs, and more time spent on HR admin and hiring temporary replacements. There’s also a potential loss of business if customer service is poor due to not having enough staff. And unauthorised absence also impacts the team – other employees can feel suddenly burdened with extra work and this is likely to impact morale.

Absenteeism is costly for all! Even the employee who is absent will suffer the repercussions – lost pay, lost momentum in work and potentially poorer relationships with colleagues and management.

What should employers do?

There are two sides to dealing with absenteeism. There’s the practical side, e.g. how to deal with the employee in question, and knowing what measures to put in place to prevent further unauthorised absences. And then there are the wider cultural issues to consider. Are your employees happy at work? Is there more you can do as an employer to prevent absenteeism?

In the first instance, the moment an absence without permission is noticed, the employer (or relevant manager) should try to contact the absent employee. This should always be instigated from a place of concern. In work cultures where managers are constantly watching over the shoulders of employees, a call will only reinforce this sense of mistrust.

The best solution is to speak to the employee when he or she returns to work. Then the reason for their absence can be discussed with them. If the employee is unable to explain their absence, further disciplinary action may be necessary. How unauthorised absence will be dealt with, should be explained in the business’s disciplinary policy.

Employment law doesn’t require employers to pay employees if they have taken time off without permission. But sometimes employees are absent for reasons out of their control – a delayed flight, an emergency hospital visit and since Covid, self-isolation on return from holiday can be added to the list if the government rules change whilst someone is away.

There are many circumstances where employees may not be able to contact their employer immediately to let them know they won’t be attending work that day.

Excessive absenteeism should always be treated as a serious concern. But unless it is proven that your employee has been lying to you, dismissal should follow legal protocols and be a last resort.

excessive absenteeismPreventing unauthorised excessive absenteeism – culture

Companies with the least flexibility in working arrangements are the ones likely to suffer most from absenteeism. Poor work culture is more likely to result in unhappy employees, stress and burnout – all of which contribute to absenteeism.

The rate of work-related stress, anxiety and depression is increasing. The pandemic has placed additional stresses on many employees and the shift to remote and hybrid work models will also have taken its toll on some. Wellbeing programmes at work are no longer a nice-to-have. They are essential.

Employees are much more likely to discuss their needs and be open about their personal situation in a business where there is a culture of trust. This is even more important now that people are doing some or all their work from home.

Managers are having to take on increasingly pastoral roles. More organisations now look to line managers to take primary responsibility for managing both short- and long-term absence, says a report by CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development). However, CIPD reports that this expectation isn’t being matched by a corresponding increase in the training of managers for handling absences.

While the buck stops with individuals, addressing cultural issues is the starting point in any business where absenteeism is rife. Managers also need the tools to be able to identify problems and address them.

Change starts by asking your employees. WeThrive surveys quickly uncover how people really feel about working in your organisation and what needs to change. Our manager dashboard uncovers individual employee issues before bigger problems arise. Tackle absenteeism with WeThrive and get your first 10 employees free.