What Causes Chronic Absenteeism, and What Can Companies Do About It?

8 minutes read

By Julie Kramer 

Every employer expects some unplanned employee absences. 

Workers—and their kids—get sick. Life happens. These occasional timeouts won’t hurt the business. However, chronic absenteeism is something else entirely. It’s a nefarious problem that costs U.S employers a staggering $84 billion per year in lost productivity.

Chronic absenteeism—an employee’s habitual failure to come to work as scheduled—can wreak havoc on businesses. It decreases productivity. It alienates customers when products and services aren’t delivered as promised. It hurts morale, as workers grow resentful of their frequently-AWOL team members. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the workforce logged an overall absence rate of 3.2% last year—and in some industries, the rates were even higher. For example, service occupations like janitors and security guards logged an absence rate of 4.2%. 

Surprisingly, although absenteeism is a real problem for many employers, some aren’t giving it the attention it deserves. 

But few employers are in a position to throw money away. Which is why it’s in every employer’s best interest to learn what’s behind chronic absenteeism—in order to get out in front of it. 

Reasons for Chronic Absenteeism

Not all employees with poor attendance are deliberately flouting their employers’ attendance policies. Some have legitimate problems that get in the way of work, but still must be addressed. 

Researchers have found that the most common causes of chronic absenteeism include:       

Whatever the reason, employees can’t improve their attendance until they address their problems—something employers often can help with either directly or indirectly.   

5 Ways to Deter Chronic Absenteeism

The most effective way to prevent chronic absenteeism is to initiate a multipronged attendance-improvement program that includes:  

  • Reviewing and Strengthening Your Attendance Policy: You undoubtedly have an attendance policy in place, but if attendance is still problematic, it could be better. Make sure your attendance policy is clear and specific. Define what excessive absenteeism is. Communicate your expectations. Ask workers to sign an attendance agreement. Explain the consequences of breaking it.

Be sure to communicate your attendance policy repeatedly—in your employee handbook, during onboarding and periodically thereafter. 

Give your managers the tools and training to enforce it. Make it part of their job description, ensuring it’s observed companywide.

  1. Focusing on Employee Health and Well-being: Chronic absenteeism can be a sign of greater physical or mental health issues. Proactively offering employees support for such problems yields benefits beyond improved attendance.

Train your managers to identify signs that employees are struggling and engage them in appropriate conversations, connecting them to resources like your employee assistance program (EAP) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when indicated.

On a larger scale, build a workplace culture that supports a healthy work-life balance, encouraging employees to use their PTO and take care of themselves. 

Offer Incentives for Good Attendance

 While some employers resist the idea of paying employees just to show up, others have found that rewarding good attendance pays off. 

Attendance reward programs can take many forms, such as offering cash bonuses, gift cards or even paid time off. Recognizing employees in front of their peers is effective, too.

No matter how you structure your program, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to keep good attendance front and center. 

Improve Employee Engagement 

Many workforce problems come down to employee engagement—or lack thereof. Currently, only one-third of the U.S. workforce is actively engaged. Needless to say, the less engaged the employee, the more likely they are to miss work.

When employers take the time to make work meaningful for their people, it gives them a reason to commit to their work. When employees feel like part of a team, they think twice about letting their manager and coworkers down. It can make a big difference. 

Track Your Absenteeism

A surprising number of employers fail to collect significant information regarding absenteeism, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The problem with that? How can you know what’s wrong when you don’t know where—or why—the problem is occurring?

Your HCM software should be instrumental in tracking and leveraging attendance data. A strong HR analytics program will collect and crunch data from your time and attendance system, so you can monitor attendance rates by shift, worksite, manager, etc.  

This allows you to identify attendance patterns. Is it a manager problem? A worksite-specific issue? Or something else that you might not otherwise catch?  Bonus: You can track the effectiveness of the improvements you put into place, too. 

There are many challenges employers can’t control, but chronic absenteeism isn’t one of them. With sound attendance policies, an employee-centered philosophy and strong HR technology, you can master this one—and your people will benefit from it, too. 

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