Managing Absenteeism in the Workplace

Running a business involves having employees, and one of the critical factors in managing employees is reducing absenteeism. People take time out from work for various reasons, and when it becomes excessive, it comes at a cost to the business.

However, labor laws in most countries protect employees from unfair practices, such as termination for absenteeism. Business owners need to understand how to manage absenteeism in the workplace for the company’s benefit. At the same time, they should ensure they are not violating any laws that protect employees.

What is absenteeism?

Absenteeism is the general term used for the failure of an employee to be present on a regular workday. It may be scheduled or unscheduled, and it can be categorized as culpable and non-culpable. Another term for non-culpable absenteeism in Canada is innocent absenteeism.

Culpable absenteeism refers to instances when an employee fails to come to work because of circumstances within the employee’s control. Culpable absences include tardiness, fraudulent sick leave, or leaving the workplace early without a reasonable explanation. Extending vacation leave without notifying the company may also be considered a culpable absence. In many cases, culpable absenteeism may result in disciplinary action, including termination.

Non-culpable or innocent absenteeism is when an employee cannot come to work due to factors beyond their control. Examples under Canadian law include absences due to illness, injury, or urgent family matters. While it does not explicitly include divorce, it may qualify as an urgent family matter. An employee may have to miss work to deal with leaving a narcissist, as these cases can be pretty complex.  

The Cost of Absenteeism

There is no doubt absenteeism harms any business. A study pegs the global losses at between 15 and 20 percent of payroll costs.

Among the costs is the need to hire temp workers or pay overtime to other employees to cover the absent employee. In many cases, companies in labor-intensive industries hire more people than they need in anticipation of absenteeism. Small businesses are not immune to these costs, primarily due to lost business opportunities.

Reducing absenteeism is in the best interest of employers. Interestingly, managers and employers can address many of the causes of absenteeism.

Causes of Absenteeism

People don’t come to work for various reasons, some of which are legitimate. However, determining the validity of the reason is not always easy. In some cases, flexibility and willingness to adapt and accommodate are essential for both managers and employers.

  • Hostile work environment: Employees may experience bullying or harassment in the workplace, prompting them to avoid the situation by calling in sick.
  • Stress and burnout: High-stress jobs with little or no acknowledgment can lead to burnout and resentment. Employees who feel unappreciated may be absent more frequently than those who get recognition for their work. Personal issues may also contribute to absenteeism.
  • Family matters: When children or elderly family members need constant supervision, and the caregiver is unavailable, employees may not have a choice. They must miss work to attend to them. Illness or injury of their loved ones are also potential reasons for unscheduled absences.
  • Mental issues: Depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems may lead employees to take time off work to address them. It may be due to a recent trauma, such as the death of a loved one. Sometimes, these mental issues may lead to substance abuse or overmedication.
  • Low engagement: Many employees have no motivation to come to work because of low or no engagement in the workplace. They miss work because they feel no loyalty or commitment to the job.
  • Illness or injury: Most people take a few days a year because of illness, typically during flu season. Some may also have chronic health issues such as back or joint problems that keep them from work. Accidents can also result in acute injuries that may lead to a few days to months of missed work.

Any of these causes may result in excused (innocent or non-culpable) or unexcused (culpable) absences. As an employer or manager, you must determine on a case-to-case basis. Suppose the absences are excessive and detrimental to your business. You can then decide on the steps to take to address the issue.

Leave policies may offer some legal protection and a guideline for proceeding. But you must make a judgment based on context. Making a mistake in disciplining or terminating an employee due to absenteeism can land you in legal trouble down the road. When in doubt, consult a labor lawyer in your jurisdiction.

Reducing Absenteeism in the Workplace

Covering your bases when managing absenteeism is smart. However, the better way to manage absenteeism is to prevent it.

Keep the workplace comfortable

Ensure the workplace is safe and conducive to productivity. It should be well-lit, ventilated, and kept at an optimal temperature. You should also see to it that employees have reasonable workloads and hire additional people during peak seasons.

Aside from addressing their physical and professional comfort, safeguard their emotional and psychological well-being. Have stringent rules on workplace bullying and harassment and take all allegations seriously. Additionally, employees should have the assurance that they can file a complaint or suggestion without retaliation. Employees who feel secure in the workplace are less likely to miss work.

Maintain clear attendance and absence policies

It is essential to set employees’ expectations by having clear rules about attendance and absences. The policies must set out the consequences of tardiness and unexcused or unscheduled absences. You must also ensure all employees know these policies by discussing them during onboarding and regular reminders.

Post the rules in prominent areas and reiterate them during staff meetings. Some companies require employees to sign off on these policies as part of their employment. It is an excellent way to ensure they know about them so everyone is on the same page.

Track attendance to record excessive absenteeism

Attendance records provide a basis for identifying patterns of behavior. They provide solid data for determining if specific employees are late or absent excessively, when, and for what reasons. Suppose an employee always calls in sick before or after holidays. That might indicate fraudulent sick leaves, which warrants a closer look. Call in the employee for a discussion about this pattern of behavior and document such meetings for future reference. 

Talk to employees with excessive innocent absenteeism

Suppose an employee provides a valid reason for being absent, such as illness or family issues. It would be best if you talked to them about it without involving disciplinary action. In most jurisdictions, non-culpable absences preclude such actions, but you must still resolve it. Sometimes, the employee has no option but to miss work, so it would be counterproductive to punish them for it.

However, you have a business to run. It is critical to come to an understanding with the employee about how to deal with their absences. Ask them about their situation to create a workaround that will work for your business and employees. You can offer to reduce their hours or place them on call. When possible, provide them an option of remote work so they can keep their employment.

Suppose the employee cannot or will not accept any of your offered solutions. Typically, you can terminate their employment if you can prove undue hardship because of their absenteeism.


Absenteeism comes at a significant cost to employers. It is in their best interest to manage it without incurring legal problems. The best way to deal with excessive absenteeism is to nip it in the bud. Ensure employees have a secure and comfortable workplace and take reasonable steps to prevent excessive absenteeism. Suppose your efforts to address absenteeism through educating, discussing, and accommodating your employees prove unsuccessful. You must do what is necessary to protect your business.

Feature Image by getrodeo from Unsplash

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