We all need to take a day off occasionally. No matter how healthy or lucky we are, life can throw any number of reasons at us that prevent us from working.

And more of us are staying home than before. In the UK, the sickness absence rate (the percentage of working hours lost due to sickness or injury) rose to 2.6% in 2022, an increase of 0.4% on 2021’s figure, and the highest it’s been since 2004, when it was 2.7%.

Most businesses expect some amount of absence in their workforce. But they don’t always prepare for all the eventualities. Being ready for the many reasons workers might be absent is a smart move for business planning.

Absenteeism – when it becomes a trend instead of a few one-offs – is unavoidable, but can be mitigated with smart management. Having too many absent employees can cause chaos and get rather expensive.

Here’s what you need to know about this common workplace challenge.

What is absenteeism?

Employee absenteeism is the frequent or habitual absence of employees during their designated workdays. But it's more than just taking a few sick days. Chronic absenteeism is a pattern that can have significant consequences on the business (which we’ll look at below).

While there’s no definite threshold that defines it, some organisations have tried to systematise it for easier management. The Bradford Factor is one way of deciding how many absences constitutes too many – but we think it’s an archaic, unfair system. Absences should be managed, but helping fix the root cause is better than punishing employees based on arbitrary numbers.

Why is absenteeism a problem?

Unplanned absences and unexcused absences can cause a lot of trouble. They can result in lost productivity, force co-workers to take on additional tasks, and create operational disruptions for team members.

These are in contrast to planned absences (like holidays, sabbaticals etc.) which are more manageable, as you can make arrangements to deal with them in advance.

The modern workplace has seen an increase in understanding the cost of absenteeism. As well as lost work hours, there’s the broader impact on employee morale, the increased challenges faced by co-workers, and the overall employee experience. In short - it’s not good for the entire company.

As for actual figures, these ones paint a pretty good picture of the effects.

70% of UK SMEs say that a high absenteeism rate negatively affects their bottom line profitability. And it’s not ideal for the wider economy, either. The combination of people on sick leave and those injured at work costs the UK economy almost £19 billion per year.

So what are the causes of absenteeism at work? There are plenty – let’s take a look.

What are the most common causes of absenteeism in the workplace?

Why do employees miss days of work?

Driving forces like workplace bullying, burnout / overwork, and the pressures of presenteeism  (where employees feel compelled to work despite being unwell) can all really amplify the absence rate.

These are cultural issues that aren’t always easy to spot, and can cause a multitude of conditions that mean people end up missing work. Personal issues, physical ailments and mental health issues can all manifest from these issues.

We’ll go through the main symptoms below. Here are the most common reasons people might stay home from work, over both the short and long term.

Physical Health

Long term medical conditions - these could be illnesses like heart disease, cancer or other ailments that require multiple visits to doctors and hospitals. They can also include recurring ailments like asthma or severe allergies.

Short term illnesses - colds, fevers, infections, stomach upsets, menstrual problems and migraines.

Injuries - temporary incapacitations like broken bones or sports injuries.

Musculoskeletal problems - repetitive strain injury is a common one that prevents people typing on computer keyboards. Back pain is so common it almost warrants its own category. (It can be accommodated to some extent in the office, with changes to seating arrangements, but can be so severe as to stop people working.)

Pregnancy-related absence - for health issues or complications that don't make up part of regular maternity leave.

Mental health

Stress - occupational stress that's caused by workplace pressures; this can have both psychological and physical effects. It can also affect quality of sleep and the immune system, leading to further maladies that cause people to take stress leave.

Anxiety - this is similar to stress but can be caused by issues outside of work, and can result in panic attacks, lack of sleep, and other issues.

Depression - related to the above, this can be short-term (due to negative life events) or persistent over the span of years. People can be signed off work for weeks or months at a time if a doctor diagnoses them with severe depression.

Addiction issues - compulsive use of alcohol and other drugs can cause health issues that need medical / psychiatric intervention.

Life absences

Childcare problems - when a child is ill or having other trouble at school, or when childcare can't be arranged, etc.

Bereavement or compassionate leave - when a close relative has passed away, or is seriously ill, they might take bereavement leave.

Other life events and responsibilities - this could involve home or family emergencies for example, like a boiler breaking down in the winter, a burglary or a flood. It could also include jury duty (although this is rare), emergency pet care or things that don't fit into other categories. For example, if someone's had a difficult relationship breakup, or they've been witness to a crime, they might be too upset to work.

Unauthorised absence

‘Pulling a sickie’ or having an unauthorised duvet day - opting to take a day off just because it’s desired. This is almost always claimed as something else, so is hard to track in most cases.

What can companies do to prevent absence?

Well, it’s a complicated answer; we might have to leave that for another article. But it starts at the top, by building a company culture that respects staff wellbeing and their lives outside work.

When people are treated with respect and are supported by the company they work for, they’ll be less likely to suffer from ill health or want to skip work in the first place.

Benefits, incentives, and a proactive approach by human resources can reduce the frequency of unscheduled absences.

So individual employees can benefit from free gym memberships and wellness programs, mental health support (access to counsellors or time off to seek mental health help), healthy work environments (good light, air, furniture and layout that takes everyone’s needs into account) and generous healthcare schemes (ie. insurance).

Human resources can also take the lead in absence management, creating strategies to counteract the impact of absenteeism. Disciplinary action can be considered for excessive absenteeism, but it's equally essential to deal with the root causes, and focus on a really good employee experience.

Addressing the core issues can lead to better employee engagement, retention, and overall productivity.

The recent pandemic also shed light on the importance of flexible working arrangements and Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) in managing and supporting employee wellbeing.

Have an absence policy so everyone knows where they stand

The importance of addressing absenteeism can't be understated. From the direct cost of lost workdays to the indirect toll on full-time team members and the broader employee wellbeing, understanding and managing the nuances of employee absence is pivotal for a thriving workplace environment.

Having a well thought-out absence policy is crucial for staff to know where they stand - here's a guide on how to make one. As well as this, a responsible management style that doesn’t encourage overwork, and instead encourages staff to go home on time and take all their annual leave allowance, will have similar results.

Sure, there are the occasional misbehavers who take advantage of such policies, but these are rare. The overall effect on team cohesion, productivity and attendance will undoubtedly be positive.