Absenteeism is a familiar and unavoidable challenge for all businesses. Employees will always need to take time off, mostly because of minor illness, injuries and medical appointments, but also due to factors like stress, family caring commitments and dissatisfaction with their job.

As an employer, you need to take a well-planned and carefully considered approach to this issue if you want to prevent it from having a serious impact on your business and your customers.

Fortunately, there are various steps you can take and strategies you can employ to manage absenteeism. Among the most effective measures are a proactive mindset, which will help you deal with the effects of staff shortages by planning ahead, and a long-term focus on identifying and addressing the reasons why people take unscheduled time off.

costs and causes of absenteeism

When absenteeism escalates to above-average levels, or when you notice that employees are persistently taking unplanned time off or failing to comply with your attendance policy, the effect on your business could be severe.

Repercussions might include:

  • Missed deadlines
  • Unhappy customers
  • Reductions in employee productivity if people have to be redeployed to cover staff shortages
  • Lower morale among staff who have to deal with heavy or unpredictable workloads

The difficulties businesses are likely to face when absenteeism increases significantly, or becomes a persistent, long-term problem, were evident in 2020.

According to an analysis of US federal labor market data by USA Today, an average of 1.5 million employees a month missed work because of illness, injury or medical problems over the course of the year. This is a 45% increase on the average for the previous two decades.

The COVID-19 pandemic fuelled this increase in absenteeism and also contributed to growth in childcare-related absences in the US, which were 250% higher than the 20-year average.

In the EU, work absences due to illness or disability rose from 3.9 million in Q1 2020 to 4.4 million in the second quarter, when many countries were feeling the impact of the first wave of COVID-19 infections.

Physical illness is just one reason why people might be unable to attend work. As an employer, you also need to consider the mental health of your workforce. Depression is estimated to cause 200 million lost workdays a year in the US, at a cost of between $17 billion and $44 billion to employers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 7% of the EU population have reported experiencing chronic depression, with double-digit numbers recorded in countries like Ireland, Portugal, Germany and Finland.

Going beyond personal health and wellbeing, members of your workforce might have to take unscheduled time off to care for sick or elderly relatives, or simply because they're unhappy at work or want some time to look for another job.

Whatever the causes, if people are frequently absent and you're seeing consequences like diminished employee productivity, late customer delivery and escalating overtime or sick pay costs, you know you have an absenteeism problem and it's time to take action.

be proactive and plan

The employers that have the most success in managing absenteeism and mitigating its impact on the business are those that take a proactive approach, as opposed to simply reacting to staff shortages and scrambling to plug gaps in the workforce.

Analyzing your labor force and conducting activities like skills audits will help you gain a clear picture of where you currently stand, in terms of capacity and capabilities, and where the biggest problems are likely to arise when absence levels are high. This will put you in a much stronger position to anticipate challenges caused by staff reductions and be ready for them.

It's crucial to prepare for times of reduced workforce capacity by identifying the tasks and activities that are critical to the functioning of the business. You can then create a detailed rundown of the knowledge and skills required to complete these jobs. This will help you work out which activities need to be prioritized and which ones can be taken on by other employees when key members of staff are absent.

These are generally good practices from a workforce management and scheduling perspective. They help to ensure that you're always making the best use of available talent and deploying people where they're most effective, regardless of your current position with respect to absenteeism.

Furthermore, pinpointing the competencies required to complete critical tasks and having a clear picture of the skills in your labor force will help to inform your training and development plans. Putting dedicated training programs in place to upskill in these vital areas will help to ensure you can always keep your core business running, even when you're understaffed.

look for the root causes of absenteeism

Another way you can be proactive in your absenteeism efforts and general workforce management is by looking for the underlying reasons why people are taking time off in high numbers. This could give rise to long-term, lasting solutions that help you keep overall levels of absence to a minimum.

There could be many root causes of high absenteeism. Long-term health problems and chronic illness are key factors, but it's also possible that lots of people are taking time off because of issues such as:

  • Negative aspects of company culture, like workplace bullying or poor management
  • Problems in employees' personal lives that are affecting their mental health or ability to work
  • Unsatisfactory work/life balance
  • General disengagement and dissatisfaction with work

To identify these issues, you need to have close connections with your workforce and an understanding of how people feel about their jobs.

As part of our Inhouse Services solution, we offer a care program that can support your efforts to gauge sentiment in your workforce and identify which aspects of their work people appreciate or find difficult. We can also support your overall efforts to optimize recruitment and HR, which could prove crucial when you're understaffed and need to hire reliable workers quickly.

We've produced a guide that provides further advice on how you can manage absenteeism and keep your business running smoothly even when your workforce is depleted.

about the author
sandra ebbers

sandra ebbers

vp global concept inhouse & large accounts

Sandra is responsible for the implementation of the inhouse concept worldwide. This business concept adds value to large organizations by optimizing their workforce and guiding flex workers in a cost efficient way of working.