Absenteeism can be defined as any failure on the part of the employee to report to work when scheduled to do so. This includes absences that occur for any reason, whether involuntary or voluntary. Here, involuntary absenteeism refers to unavoidable illnesses and injuries that prevent an employee from attending to their work obligations. Voluntary absenteeism, on the other hand, includes unplanned absences to look after sick dependents, but can also be the outcome of boredom and/or low job satisfaction.
Unauthorized absenteeism represents a major cost for organizations all over the globe. Although individual incidents of absenteeism are fairly innocuous, the cumulative impact can be substantial. The impact on the North American economy alone is estimated to be in excess of $60 million. The obvious costs are those associated with the absentees themselves and includes their regular pay and benefits. Beyond this are the costs related to replacement labor, overtime, and lost productivity. There are also several flow-on effects that impact other workers in the organization, including the increased workload and stress experienced by staff members who are required to compensate for the absent coworker. Understaffing or work overload may in turn increase the risk of workplace accidents and reduce the amount of output and the quality produced. There are also additional time and financial costs associated with extra supervision and training of temporary staff. Studies reveal that the costs of absenteeism may in fact be higher than the amount of work time lost due to industrial disputes.
The two key factors attributed to high levels of absenteeism are ability to attend and motivation to attend. The variables that affect an employee’s ability to attend work are often beyond the control of organizations. An employee’s motivation to attend work, on the other hand, includes variables such as employee morale and satisfaction—factors that are within the control of the organization. A number of studies have shown that organizations that experience high levels of absenteeism also tend to experience issues related to staff morale. Industrial disputes tend also to be greater, as well as the costs associated with workers compensation. Overall, there is an important link between absence and factors such as poor interpersonal communication, job boredom, and poor supervisory skills. Furthermore, there is significant evidence to suggest that a large proportion of absences are potentially avoidable.
A 2005 study on U.S. human resources executives found that personal illnesses accounted for only 35 percent of unscheduled absences from work. Most absences were due to other reasons, including family issues (21 percent), personal needs (18 percent), entitlement mentality (14 percent), and stress (12 percent). Studies also confirm that absenteeism is a low base rate behavior. In other words, absenteeism is most typically associated with a small number of people who are absent often.
Surveys conducted on absenteeism indicate that those on higher rates of pay and with longer length of service are less likely to be absent. Furthermore, absenteeism rates tend to grow as an organization grows. Other statistics relating to absenteeism suggest that women tend to be absent more frequently than men and younger employees are absent more frequently than older employees. When older employees are absent, it tends to be for longer periods of time than younger employees. Absenteeism rates also tend to be much higher in unionized workplaces.
Due to the costs and associated flow-on effects, organizations have pursued many strategies to reduce absenteeism. Most of these measures have been designed to improve employees’ quality of work life and levels of job satisfaction, because it is generally accepted that the control of absenteeism depends partly on successfully addressing the physical and emotional needs of employees. These measures are also based on the assumption that absenteeism is the result of employee withdrawal from dissatisfying aspects of the job. The implementation of a high-performance work culture has been one particular strategy utilized by organizations, with a particular emphasis on ensuring employees have an adequate “fit” in the organization.
Other organizations have pursued more flexible work practices that meet the needs of both the organization and its employees. Such measures are based on the assumption that absenteeism is due to the inadequacies associated with existing arrangements, and that the curbing of absences requires providing employees with greater control over when and where they work. The initiatives that have been found to be most successful in reducing levels of unscheduled absences are the implementation of alternative work arrangements, compressed work weeks, job sharing, and telecommuting.
Job redesign has also been the focus of many human resource initiatives aimed at combating absenteeism. Measures such as job enlargement, job rotation, and job enrichment have the impact of increasing the scope of jobs and the skills required to perform them, thus making a typically routine and mundane task more interesting and challenging. Organizations have also implemented more preventative occupational health and safety strategies in order to minimize absences related to workers compensation.
While absenteeism has historically been viewed as an indicator of the adjustment of employees to the workplace, there has been limited attention paid to the social context within which such adjustments occur. The last two decades, however, have been defined by an increased consciousness of the implications of social context on absence behaviors. The emphasis on the social approach has emerged through observations into absenteeism in organizations; in particular, the variations in absence rates across different units and social groups within departments, departments within organizations, and organizations within industries. This has led some researchers to suggest the presence of absence cultures in certain organizational contexts.
- Buschak, C. Cravem, and R. Ledman, “Managing Absenteeism for Great Productivity,” SAM Advanced Management Journal (1996);
- Isherwood, “The Financial Effects of Absence from Work,” Bulletin of Industrial Psychology and Personnel Practice (1952);
- M. Steers and S. R. Rhodes, “Major Influences on Employee Attendance: A Process Model,” Journal of Applied Psychology (1978);
- C. Thomas and M. Hersen, A Handbook of Mental Health in the Workplace (Sage, 2002).
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