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How to Mitigate Employee Absenteeism

Mona Bushnell
Mona Bushnell

HR professionals offer their advice on how to manage employee absences during COVID-19 and beyond.

What is employee absenteeism?

Employee absenteeism doesn't refer to when a person occasionally misses work, uses their paid vacation time or is approved for leave. Instead, they call out habitually. According to AIHR Digital, employee absenteeism costs the United States economy an estimated $84 billion annually.

Employee absenteeism is something every small business owner must manage even during the best of times. In the midst of COVID-19, managing employee absences is more fraught than usual, as public health guidelines dictate that any employee experiencing illness must be allowed to self-quarantine at home for a minimum of two weeks.

Main causes of employee absenteeism

Although the pandemic has caused many to miss work, there are other reasons for employee absenteeism. These are the most commonly cited reasons for not going into work:

  • Illnesses or injuries: Employees who suffer from chronic medical conditions or recent injuries may miss a significant number of workdays. Family illnesses and injuries can also contribute to chronic absenteeism.
  • Workplace harassment: If an employee is feeling harassed or bullied by co-workers or supervisors, they may want to avoid work as often as possible.
  • Low employee morale: Morale is an important factor in mitigating employee absenteeism. If employees don't feel good about their workplace, they are less likely to show up every day.
  • Child care issues: Not having care for young children at home could make a worker more likely to call out of work frequently.
  • Stress: Workplace stressors could lead to employee absenteeism. This is especially true in the case of employee burnout.

We asked HR professionals for their insights on mitigating employee absenteeism during both COVID-19 and normal times. Read on to learn the steps they recommend taking, as well as their answers to frequently asked questions about managing absenteeism.

How to mitigate employee absenteeism during COVID-19 and beyond

Typically, when a business is suffering high levels of employee absenteeism, the first mitigating step is to figure out the underlying cause. In the case of unscheduled absenteeism due to COVID-19 symptoms, obviously that is not necessary. Rather, you should create clear workplace policies, manage with compassion and communicate effectively.

1. Make clear policies.

Nearly every HR pro we heard from stressed the importance of clear communication and consistent policies. Shradha Kumari, HR manager at SurveySensum, told that consistency in carrying out policies is just as important as writing good policies to begin with.

"We trained all supervisors and managers on how to put in place the attendance policy and informed managers about the flexibility criteria," she said. "Some managers may be lenient, and some can be harsh. This inconsistent behavior can lead to resentment from employees. So, maintaining consistency in the attendance policy is very crucial."

Karen Oakey, director of HR at Fracture, also shared some great advice with us on how to manage employee absences through policy: "My best nugget of advice to share with business owners is simply to be fair, firm and consistent always, but remain open-minded and empathetic during these strange times. Review the roles of each person in your company and how they support your business." 

In addition to suggesting flexible work hours, Oakey advises small business owners to "reach out to your local peers and see what they are doing. If you don't have an HR expert on staff, connect with one on LinkedIn, and see if they can offer insight. Put some legwork into the process, because your employees are your company's most valuable resource, and their health and well-being should be the No. 1 priority of any HR strategy."

Another HR director we spoke with, Jenna Carson from Music Grotto, told us it's important to have policies that help employees feel like they can stay home if they get sick and that also help manage productivity.

"We've established some strong communication channels to ensure that everyone knows what their colleagues are up to with their work and projects, and have access to their files should they need to take over for a while if someone gets sick," she said. "I feel this has removed a little anxiety for the team and for us, as we know business can carry on as usual if we're sick." 

2. Keep supporting remote work options.

Despite the excitement and pressure many business owners feel to reopen, several HR reps we heard from were quick to point out that remote work shouldn't be taken off the menu yet.

Tim Reitsma, an HR professional at People Managing People, put it well: "A supervisor has to realize that people are still deeply afraid. If the employee has shown a good track record working from home, offer them an extra WFH day or two to ease them back into the work environment." 

Tatyana Tyagun, HR generalist for Chanty, told us that her company plans to continue offering employees the option of working remotely. "We have a policy where everyone can work from their preferred location – either home or the office, whichever suits them – so long as they get their work done for the day. That way, absenteeism is decreased to a minimum and people show up for work almost all of the time."

3. Offer flexible hours, and plan for temps.

Planning for employee absences is key to stay afloat. Two recurring ideas from the HR professionals we spoke with were offering flexible work hours and hiring temps. In fact, some HR experts recommended that small business owners reach out to temp agencies before they need additional help, just in case.

Other alternative flex work concepts experts suggested include running your business in day and night shifts and staffing them at 50% capacity. Another innovative scheduling option we heard is to have employees work in two-week shifts and then take two weeks off, cycling through to minimize potential virus spread. 

According to Hilliary Turnipseed, founder and president of HR consultancy Hill Street Strategies, a little scheduling leeway can go a long way. "Some recent popular approaches are to offer a four-day workweek, make Fridays optional or designate a day with no meetings. These are small changes that can have a profound effect on mitigating burnout and amplified stress, and promoting work-life balance."

4. Provide employee wellness programs.

If employees are feeling overwhelmed frequently at work, you should create wellness programs. These programs can provide a way for everyone to unwind and mitigate common workplace stressors. You could arrange for retreats that promote activities such as yoga and meditation. Seminars should be arranged that give advice to employees on how to live healthier lifestyles and achieve a good work/home life balance.

5. Boost workplace morale.

Make sure your staff is engaged and feels good about the jobs they are doing. Recognize achievements often, without concentrating as much on the negative. Offer incentives for a job well done, and praise team members when a project meets or surpasses goals. If employees feel recognized for their accomplishments rather than invisible to their superiors, they are less likely to call in sick.

6. Collect feedback often.

Survey your employees quarterly to get a feel for their mindsets. If satisfaction levels are high, you're less likely to experience bouts of chronic absenteeism. In cases of negative feedback, try to address employee concerns quickly to prevent future absences.

7. Try remediation with an employee.

Taking a hard stance on employee absenteeism can backfire. If you're quick to terminate or punish an employee, you may lower workplace morale and further contribute to chronic absenteeism. Instead, meet one on one with an employee if you note frequent absences, talking to them to find out the underlying causes. Provide any assistance you can to help diminish absences.

FAQs about employee absenteeism

Managing employee attendance is not the most glamorous aspect of running a small business, but it's vital. Small business owners often lack in-house HR professionals, so they face the task of creating sick leave and absenteeism policies on their own. If this sounds like a familiar challenge to you, this FAQs guide is a great place to start. Read our reviews of the best HR software options for small business if you're looking for a partner.

Should you have a formal attendance policy?

There are benefits to having a comprehensive absenteeism policy as a small business owner, but the major reason is to help you avoid possible discrimination issues. Managing absenteeism requires clear communication of your expectations for employees requesting time off or asking for reasonable accommodation. Most HR professionals recommend creating a workplace absenteeism document and not only disseminating it to employees but also walking them through each point in case they have questions.

How do you solve excessive absenteeism?

Chronic absenteeism is a costly problem, but it should be dealt with carefully. If your workplace has mostly good attendance and the issue is with an individual, you should plan a meeting with that employee – with an HR rep present if possible – and simply ask them if there is a reason for their chronic absenteeism. Go into the meeting with a plan for reasonable accommodation it it's warranted, or to issue (and document) a warning if appropriate.

If the excessive absenteeism is widespread in your company, a more in-depth investigation may be necessary. For instance, if unscheduled absenteeism is mostly happening in a specific department, you should investigate the relationship between its workers and managers. Absences can sometimes indicate a toxic work environment, including harassment or other forms of misconduct. If it's a companywide issue, you should have a serious meeting about your current attendance policy. Consider conducting an anonymous survey with all your employees that covers how they feel about not only attendance and work-life balance, but also the company culture in general. Companies with rampant absences often also have high employee turnover.

What is a high absenteeism rate?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes absenteeism rates among different demographics. Most HR professionals quote an average rate of about 2.8%, so if your organization is experiencing a much higher absence rate than that, you may have cause for concern.

Can a workplace absenteeism rate be too low?

Yes. As with high workplace absenteeism rates, there is no magical number, but if your worker absence rate is around 1.5% or lower, that could also indicate a problem. An extremely low rate of unscheduled absences may indicate that employees are working while sick because they are not being given enough sick leave, are afraid to risk their job security by calling in sick, or are scared to ask managers for time off due to a toxic work environment.

How do you calculate employee absenteeism?

You can calculate your rate of individual employee absenteeism by dividing the number of absences by the total possible number of days worked in a certain period.

Absenteeism rate = Absences/Total possible workdays

For example, if you are looking at the absenteeism rate of an individual for the month of April and your business only operates Monday to Friday, the base number of possible workdays would be 22 days. If they were absent for three of those days, you would divide 3 by 22. This gives you 0.136, which is an absenteeism rate of 13.6%.

You'd use the same formula to calculate absences for a group of employees, but make sure you multiply the total possible workdays by the number of workers, or else you'll end up with an artificially high absenteeism rate.

How much will COVID-19 impact employee absenteeism?

No one can predict exactly how much workplace absenteeism might increase in the coming months and years, but it is wise to assume your business will not be spared. Since coronavirus outbreaks seem to be concentrated in certain metropolitan centers, it is reasonable to assume businesses near virus hotspots will experience more unplanned absences due to COVID-19 than businesses in rural or other less affected areas.

Image Credit: Prostock-Studio / Getty Images
Mona Bushnell
Mona Bushnell Staff
I'm a Staff Writer for and Business News Daily.