Essential terms used by HR and their meanings.


At least 4 days a year are lost to absence per employee in the UK. Absenteeism is a pattern or pro-longed period of absence that could be identified across an entire organisation, a particular team, or by a specific individual.

Absenteeism in the workplace

Absence and absenteeism in the workplace can be broadly grouped into three distinct types:

  • Authorised and planned absences - These are absences that have been discussed, reviewed and approved in advance with a manager or are available to employees within the organisational structure (such as volunteering days) or even things like jury service.

  • Unplanned, genuine absences - These are absences which cannot be pre-planned but legitimately restrict an individual from working, this might be due to illness, personal bereavement, childcare or other personal emergency. These absences are usually at short-notice and for a limited period (a few days).

  • Unauthorised absences - These are absences that are not pre-approved or the result of illness or personal emergency, where an employee simply does not attend the workplace for their agreed hours. While there are exceptions, this is usually as sign of an issue with the employee and a warning sign for managers and team leaders.

Causes of absenteeism in the workplace

There are numerous reasons why an employee might need to take time off, to ensure that potential patterns of absenteeism are identified early organisations should try and monitor the reasons for absence and analysis this data. Managers should also be willing to discuss the causes of absence with employees when they are identified. Some of the causes of absence frequently encountered include:

  • Short-term, minor illness - Coughs and colds, migraines, tummy bugs are illnesses that will usually only require a couple of days off work - it is often much better for an employee to take time off to ensure infectious illnesses are not spread to other members of their team.

  • Harassment and workplace bullying - Where inappropriate, threatening, and bullying behaviour is occurring in the workplace, one of the key signs is an increase in unplanned and unauthorised absences. It is essential that, where patterns of absence are discovered to be related to this behaviour, quick action is taken to address and correct the behaviour, otherwise it is likely to lead inexorable to poor staff retention, and potential issues to wider company culture or even, in extreme cases, legal issues.

  • Mental wellbeing issues - Stress and other mental health concerns will also often be preceded or accompanied by increased absence. These can be exceedingly sensitive subjects so managers should be well-equipped to discuss them, either with support services, training, or a mix of both.

  • Long-term illness or chronic conditions - Serious and chronic medical conditions can often contribute to frequent absences, both planned and unplanned. This is another situation where an individual’s wellbeing should be a top priority so approaching conversations with empathy and flexibility while taking the organisational needs in consideration will be key to finding a suitable solution.

  • Family issues - A significant number of adults in employment in the UK are also a carer for a family member, whether that is children, siblings, or parents. This means that competing priorities between work and family life can be a driver for an increase in absence.

  • Travel and commuting issues - Especially where remote working options are not able to be utilised, travel to the workplace can often be a factor in volumes of absence. Disruption to public transport, issues with maintenance of a company or personal vehicle or emergencies impacting transport infrastructure are all areas that need to be planned for and monitored.

  • Team and management issues - Poor workforce planning and management could drastically impact the volume of absence different departments and teams experience. Monitoring comparative absence rates, setting sensible evidence-based benchmarks for analysing absence, and providing tools and guidance for managers, should all be implemented to quickly resolve management level issues and forestall reduced productivity across multiple teams in unison.

  • Authorised leave - Holidays, sabbaticals, pre-planned medical procedures, training, or further education are all potential reasons for approved leave. Approved leave should have a suitable structure in place to assure that workloads are distributed, delegated, or covered in other ways to ensure both the absentee and their teammates are prepared for the leave period. Monitoring and limiting the amount of approved leave taken at any given time can prevent multiple absences at peak times for organisational activity.

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The effects of absenteeism in the workplace

No matter the cause, increasing rate of absenteeism is highly likely to have numerous, significant impacts on the performance of the individual, at the team level and the wider organisation. Issues arising from absence are unlikely to remain limited to a single individual or team for long, and may include:

  • Negative culture - Large volumes of absence are likely to cause a negative shift in the organisational culture. Perceptions of other employees and teams will suffer, potentially degrading communication at all levels and creating a combative rather than collaborative atmosphere.

  • Declining quality of work - Absence over a prolonged period often impacts the quality of work for both the individual and the team. At the individual level, a high rate of absence is going to create backlogs and time pressures, as well as potentially causing issues with process knowledge that negatively influence quality. At the team level, having to spread work across the rest of the team and increase workload will be detrimental.

  • Reduced productivity - Time out has been planned into the productivity of the business that is no longer being utilised. While a solid structure for approved absences, and for covering short-term, unexpected absences can mitigate this for limited periods, extended periods of absence are always going to cause reduced levels of productivity.

  • Financial loss - Declining quality of work and reduced productivity, driven by high absence rates, combine to directly impact the financial performance of the business. However, absence also creates other hidden costs – administration time is expended, and in some case temporary workers are required to cover increase workloads.

  • Demoralisation and demotivation - Absence, especially when it is the result of a wellbeing or health issue, can be exceedingly demoralising for the individual effected. Support in return to work and positive conversations to mitigate and manage health issues are essential in these scenarios. Where unauthorised absences are impacting a team, the team morale will be damaged as workloads rise and associated levels of stress increase, also when the perception that absence is not being effectively managed, it can hurt team morale. Quick and effective corrective action is very important for addressing team concerns.

How to address absenteeism in the workplace

It is important that the risks around absenteeism are proactively managed, while reactive solutions are possible, addressing absence rates before they become a significant issue, including:

  • Introduce and support workplace flexibility - Providing options for flexible time management empowers employees to take a more adaptable approach when dealing with things like appointments, childcare or other short notice event that would otherwise create an absence. Where appropriate, consider how roles might benefit from hybrid working opportunities to make this possible.

  • Keep morale high with positive motivation – By keeping your employees well motivated and providing plenty of positive behaviours for them incorporate into their daily routine, you can foster a highly motivated team which champions open communication, allowing potential absence causes to be discussed and proactively tackled as a group.

  • Reward good attendance – Recognising the positive impact of good attendance creates role models for employees to emulate. A structured reward programme, such as extra holiday days earned through attendance, can provide motivation for increased attendance throughout the entire organisation.

  • Lead by example – Good attitudes towards attendance and acting quickly to handle absence issues from leaders at all levels of the organisation generates positive reinforcement of the importance of attendance for all employees.

  • Reach out to employees – Providing employees with opportunities to raise their own concerns about personal absence issues or that they have identified with colleagues will create more open conversations around the issue of absenteeism. Conversations like this can help flag potential issues early and allow collaborative approaches that lead to resolution of the issue.

  • Conduct return-to-work interviews - By having a structured process for returning to work, including an interview with the employee, organisations can identify potential risks at an early stage and facilitate a meaningful dialogue with employees about how to address issues.

  • Take disciplinary action – While it is always better to resolve attendance issues through collaboration, when possible, if all a significant issue has been raised and no other resolution is possible or practical, disciplinary action will be necessary. This action should be designed to reinforce the importance and impact that unauthorised absence can have on the individual, their colleagues, and the organisation. Managers should not be afraid to use disciplinary measures when it is appropriate but support is needed to understand how to correctly judge these situations.