Unscheduled absenteeism is a chronic problem for U.S. employers—but how significant is the problem? Can absenteeism really impact your bottom line? 

The answer is yes

Employee absenteeism has both a direct and an indirect effect on your cost of doing business. Circadian’s groundbreaking “Shift Work Practices” study estimates that, conservatively, unscheduled absenteeism costs employers $3,600 per hourly employee per year and $2,650 per salaried employee per year. 

Similarly, the CDC Foundation estimates that reduced productivity linked to absenteeism costs employers $225.8 billion annually in the United States, or $1,685 per employee. 

In addition to these costs, absenteeism can contribute to poorer quality services, safety concerns, an increase in management time spent handling attendance issues, higher overtime pay, and low morale among employees who have to fill in for absent colleagues. 

So what’s the solution to this growing concern? Let’s look at what absenteeism is, what causes absenteeism, and how smart employers can prevent it.

What is Absenteeism?

Broadly defined, absenteeism at work refers to more than missed work days. Absenteeism can be any employee behavior that decrease the ability to be productive at work. While sick days, family emergencies, and other unscheduled days off can contribute to the overall problem, employees tend to be more communicative about these kinds of absences. The real issue occurs when employees are “No Call, No Shows” and don’t communicate why they will be absent, leaving management and coworkers to figure out how to cover for them. Other behaviors that also fall under the broad umbrella of absenteeism include:

  • Presenteeism, or being physically at work but doing things other than work.
  • Leavism, or taking off early, coming in late, taking long lunches, running errands during work time, etc.

Both of these practices can dramatically impact a company’s bottom line, but they are much harder to track than missed work days.

The 5 Primary Causes of Absenteeism

There are several underlying reasons why employees might miss work or be less engaged and productive at their workplace—and some are easier to identify and solve than others. Studies and surveys show that most employees miss work for one of the following reasons:

1. Workplace Stress and Burnout

Employees who are feeling overwhelmed or overworked may become less productive at work or decide to avoid the situation altogether by missing a day. Burnout also contributes to absenteeism because stressed employees are more likely to get sick and experience anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, it’s often top employees who experience workplace stress and burnout. To help reduce this problem, regularly review company practices, make sure the workload is fair and evenly distributed, and help employees learn stress management techniques.

2. Low Morale

Employees who feel undervalued, unmotivated, or unchallenged may begin to miss work days or take long lunches. Disengaged employees may also try to fix the situation themselves by seeking other employment, which is another leading cause of absenteeism. The solution is multi-faceted but not complicated. If you want employee loyalty, focus on better internal communication and create more opportunities for growth within the company. Also, make sure all employees feel heard and valued and are able to fully use their skills.

3. Childcare and Family Emergencies

When daycare isn’t an option because your kid has a cold, or when the babysitter falls through, parents often have no choice but to stay home. Some offices choose to address this problem by offering onsite childcare while others accept it as a normal cost of doing business. The key is to have clear absenteeism communication policies in place so your employees know who to notify about their absence. If possible, giving your employees the option to work remotely can also keep productivity and morale high.

4. Illness and Injury

Taking into account the time that employees spend traveling to doctor’s appointments and addressing more serious medical issues, illness and injury are the most common reason for missed time at work. Onsite healthcare and workplace wellness initiatives can both keep your workforce healthier and reduce the time that employees spend seeking care.

5. Job Hunting

If employees are seeking other employment opportunities, they may miss work days in order to go on interviews. They may also spend time at work searching through job listings and submitting resumes. Employees who miss work to job hunt have often been experiencing burnout or low morale for months or even years, but these issues have gone unaddressed. To course correct, offer more professional development opportunities to help employees strengthen their skills and grow with your organization. Committing to your employees in this way can keep them from going anywhere else.

Top 4 Ways to Prevent Absenteeism at Work

Not every cause for absenteeism or low productivity is fixable—unavoidable emergencies and illness will always come up. However, there are several workplace practices that have been demonstrated to have a significant impact on absenteeism and workforce productivity:

1. Allow for Flexible Scheduling or Remote Work Days

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the most effective ways to combat absenteeism is to give employees the option to work from home, allow for flexible scheduling, or move to a 4-day work week. With the advancement of technology, many jobs can be performed just as effectively at home. Working from home cuts down on commuting time, reduces the days lost to errands and family commitments, and empowers employees to set their schedule around their own internal productivity clock. As an added bonus, offering schedule flexibility and remote work days can help your company recruit and retain top talent. In a recent survey by Flexjobs, 84 percent of respondents said that “work flexibility” was the most important factor they considered when looking for a job. If your business requires employees to be physically present, you can still reap most of the benefits of remote work days by using a flexible scheduling software that allows employees to choose shifts, bid for popular shifts, and trade shifts with coworkers. You’ll have your workday covered and your employees will feel like they have more freedom and control over their work-life balance. The bottom line: Having some flexibility in work hours improves employee morale, boosts mental health, reduces stress, and increases employee loyalty.

2. Offer Paid Sick Days and Other Paid Leave

Similar to offering remote work days and flexible scheduling, offering paid sick leave, paid family leave, and other paid time off improves your overall workplace culture, makes employees more loyal and engaged, and reduces absenteeism. Paid sick leave can also reduce absenteeism by encouraging employees to stay home when they truly are sick—preventing other employees from getting sick, too.

Reasonable PTO policies have the added benefit of helping employers more easily track and plan for absences. When employees have a PTO bank to draw from, they are more likely to follow the proper call-in procedure, give the real reason for their absence, and let employers know about their plans in advance.

3. Implement a Comprehensive Workplace Wellness Program

A well-planned, comprehensive workplace wellness program can increase attendance and improve employee engagement while addressing the most common reasons for missed work days.

Workplace wellness programs that focus on both disease education and lifestyle modification have the best chance of producing short-term and long-term benefits for employers. Initiatives such as providing annual flu shots or hosting a series of workshops on mental health can keep your workforce healthier and happier at work.

In addition, partnering with an onsite healthcare vendor such as Proactive MD can dramatically reduce the amount of time that your employees spend seeking care. It can also improve the health of your workforce and help manage and prevent high-cost chronic conditions.

4. Set Clear Attendance Policies With Incentives

Employees can’t follow your workplace attendance policy if they don’t really know what it is. Be sure to go over the attendance policy with every new employee and discuss call-out practices and other policies at staff meetings at least once a year. Give employees the opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns as well.

At a minimum, your attendance policy should cover how to handle unplanned absences, who to notify, how to make up for missed work days, and what your company PTO benefit is.

Many companies also find that incentivizing good attendance, or incentivizing employees to take unpopular shifts, can go a long way toward reducing absenteeism. For example, offering holiday pay for shift workers who pick up hours on Thanksgiving can ensure that all shifts are covered and that employees feel that they got a choice in holiday scheduling.

It will never be possible to design a workplace where all employees are operating at 100 percent at all times. After all, your employees are people and not machines. By instituting some of these practices, however, you can create a work environment that gives employees more freedom and control over their schedules while addressing some of the most common causes of unscheduled absences.