Understanding and Dealing With Absence Types
In any corporate environment it is of the utmost importance to understand types of absenteeism. Or to put it bluntly, managers need to have a firm handle on why people are not turning up to work. Ultimately all absence types have the potential to negatively impact the bottom line. By understanding underlying factors behind different types of leave, managers can ensure that the cost of absences can be reduced to acceptable levels.
A crucial distinction when it comes to types of absenteeism is that between avoidable and unavoidable absences. These two categories obviously have different characteristics:
- An avoidable absence is one that should not have occurred or that lasts longer than is strictly necessary
- An unavoidable absence is one that was planned for, or that arose out of truly exceptional and unforeseen circumstances.
Through using accurate tracking methods, managers can seek to ensure that avoidable absences are limited as much as possible, while also seeking to mitigate the impacts of unavoidable absences.
To drill down a bit further, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that most absence types are somehow related to sickness or holidays. The picture is obviously much more complex than this. A helpful interpretive grid is to assess whether absences were granted or not granted. Having this information to hand will, obviously, place managers in a better position to assess the potential impact of different types of absenteeism.
Over the course of the rest of this article we will take a closer look at different categories of granted and non-granted absences. We shall then shift our focus to consider the challenges associated with the two most common absence types: Absences due to sickness and holidays.
The occurrence of instances of non-granted absence can present significant challenges when it comes to business continuity, efficiency, and profitability. The basic reason behind this is that absences that you are not aware of beforehand cannot be planned for and may require last-minute mitigation strategies. This is, therefore, an area that should constantly be tracked and managed through an effective absence management strategy.
Non granted absences can be broadly divided into two absence types: non-health related and health related. These two absence types will be discussed, in turn. below:
Health Related Non-Granted Absences
We will look at health related absences in more detail below. However, it is worth stating here that, in most sectors and enterprises, a significant percentage of non-granted absences will be tied to employee health. These can range from medical emergencies that lead to unplanned absences to long-term illness that causes absences to ‘spill over’ sick leave allocations. A significant subset of this type of absence arises from the fact that some workers may respond to stress by absenting themselves from work without being granted leave to do so.
Non-Health Related Non-Granted Absences
There is a wide variety of possible reasons behind why people might be absent without leave. These can include personal emergencies (e.g., having to attend a funeral), industrial action (i.e., strikes), circumstances beyond their control (e.g., traffic delays or weather events) and the shirking of responsibilities and commitments. Each of these factors will require a different response. However, before such a response can be launched it will first be necessary to have a very accurate overview of when, and how frequently, such absences took place in the past. This is another reason why the tracking of all types of absence should receive a very high priority. Not least because the limitation of non-granted absences should be at the heart of any comprehensive HR strategy.
Granted absences are somewhat easier to manage as managers will, at least, have an indication of when workers will not be present. This fact facilitates planning to temporarily replace workers or to reschedule their commitments. Having said this, the sheer variety of possible forms of granted absences means that it is not always the case that managers will have fair warning. It is, for example, far easier to plan for vacation days that were logged months in advance than for an absence that was granted in response to a personal crisis.
In assessing the types of granted absences, it should come as no surprise that health and vacation dominates (hence a fuller discussion of these domains will be included below). For the moment it will be sufficient to list the different kinds of absenteeism that can arise from health concerns:
- Sick leave, with the cause certified by a health professional (e.g., through a medical certificate). This can range from physical ailments to mental health challenges, including leave related to stress, depression, or anxiety.
- Sick leave where the cause was self-certified. This is common for less serious conditions or in the case of stress related leave. It goes without saying that self-certification cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely and that workers will have to be encouraged to seek professional help, both for their own sakes and to weed out abuses of the system.
- Leave arising from visits to health care professionals. This is granted out of a recognition of the fact that most doctors, dentists, and other medical professionals only schedule appointments during regular business hours.
- Leave associated with childbirth. This can range from short absences related to check-ups during pregnancy, to time off for delivery and recovery, through longer absences for maternity (or paternity) leave.
- Long term sickness/recovery leave. In some cases, e.g., after a serious operation or accident, workers may need to be absent for extended periods to aid their recovery. This kind of leave will often be covered by an insurance arrangement that will compensate the employee for lost time and will enable the hiring of an interim replacement.
There are, of course, also many forms of granted employee absences that have nothing to do with the health status of workers. Examples of granted absences that are non-health related include the following:
- Holiday/vacation leave. This is by far the most common kind of granted absence and will be discussed in more detail below.
- Education and Professional Development. It is often the case that new skills and deeper knowledge will benefit employers and it, therefore, makes sense to allow employees the time to further develop themselves.
- Union Involvement. In unionised workplaces employers will often be required to set aside a certain amount of time for union activities.
- Parental and/or Personal Leave. This refers to leave that is granted to take care of the needs of children or other close relatives.
- Compassionate Leave. Leave associated with a serious personal crisis (e.g., leave to attend the funeral of a close relative).
- Civic Duties. This type of leave is granted where employees must perform tasks to benefit wider society. This can include jury duty, volunteering in disaster recovery settings or short-term military service as part of a reserve unit.
When we combine all the different types of absenteeism described above, it quickly becomes clear that managing absences is not something that can be done on the back of an envelope. It is, in fact, essential to have an effective and accurate tracking, measurement, and management system in place.
Whether it is called holiday, annual leave or vacation, all employment contracts will include some provision for time away from work to rest and recuperate. For most businesses holiday allocations (known as ‘vacation’ in the USA) will account for more than 80% of all absences. In this sense it is perhaps the easiest type of absence to anticipate and manage. There are, however, a few factors to keep in mind:
- The benefits of taking solid breaks from work cannot be overstated. These allow people to reconnect with their loved ones and to refocus their energies (both mental and physical) in different directions. This will allow them to return to work re-energised and ready to look at their work in new ways.
- It is for this reason that workers should be encouraged not to simply ‘bank’ their holiday allocations but to take the breaks they are entitled to. If employees make a habit of not taking holidays it may be necessary to remind them that they are short-changing themselves.
- Unused leave allocations are entered as a liability on the company balance sheet which could result in an artificially negative view of the overall financial position of a business. This is another reason to urge employees to take regular holidays.
- When workers are away on holidays they will obviously have to be temporarily replaced. An effective absence management strategy should include detailed plans for how this can be done in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible.
A Closer Look at Absence Due to Illness
Absences due to illness (both granted and non-granted) can be very hard to manage, especially because of the very unpredictability of this type of absence. It should be clear, however, that all managers will have to be ready to deal with periodic gaps in the workforce due to health challenges.
It may be worth making a few general remarks before digging into how best to manage absence due to illness:
- This type of absence has a significant impact on the economy, individuals, and society. Sickness absence accounted for 1.8 percent of working hours in the United Kingdom in 2020. On the positive side of the ledger, it is encouraging to note that rates of sickness absence have declined consistently since 2005. This held true, even during the Covid pandemic. Covid accounted for 14% of sickness absences during 2020 but rates for other conditions declined sharply. This can probably be ascribed to people finding it easier to ‘work through’ health issues when working from home.
- Minor ailments (coughs, colds, diarrhoea, and nausea) account for 26% of health-related absences. Since these conditions are normally short-lived their impacts can mostly be classed as being mildly disruptive.
- Musculoskeletal disorders make up 15% of total health related absences. This category includes neck and back discomfort, as well as upper limb difficulties, and is most likely caused by the prevalence of office-based work.
- Mental health conditions (including stress, anxiety, and depression) cause 11% of health-related absences. It is, often the case that some of these ailments can be directly traced back to the work environment. Where this is the case, managers will have to work hard at addressing causal factors.
- It is important to note that rates of sick leave will hold relatively steady for people in their 20’s to 40’s (at 1.5% of work time). This will, however, jump a full percentage point (to around 2.5%) for people in their 50’s and 60’s.
It is obviously not possible to plan exactly when employees will be ill. However, a good absence strategy will include detailed planning for how contingencies will be managed. It is, unfortunately, also necessary to have solid systems in place for the verification of claims of illness to minimise shirking or attempts to ‘game the system’.
Companies should, lastly, take steps to protect themselves from the fallout that could arise from serious and long-term illnesses. Some conditions can obviously drag into months and could, in the worst cases, lead to the end of someone’s career (or even life).
Contingency plans for the long-term substitution, or replacement, of workers who are dealing with serious illness will, therefore, have to be in place. This may include the possibility of taking out business continuity insurance linked to employee health.
It should be clear from the above that businesses will sometimes have to deal with an almost bewildering range of both granted and non-granted absences. A key part of managing this complexity is to make sure that there are solid systems in place to track and measure the impacts of different types of absenteeism.
On top of this, a responsible strategy for managing absences should also include detailed contingency plans to ensure business continuity. If all these things are in place, most absences will cease to be occasions for panic and crisis management. Managers will instead be able to have a clear pathway in terms of their response and the overall objective of keeping the wheels of their businesses turning smoothly.
Types of absences at the workplace
The study on workplace absences from the Scandinavian journal of social medicine distinguishes two main types of absences:
- avoidable absences
- unavoidable absences
We researched the top studies on absences while building our absence tracker system to better understand the impact and causes of absences.
The most common types of granted absences are:
- Annual leave/vacation
- Parental leave
- Personal reasons e.g. funeral
- Sickness (certified by a physician)
- Maternity leave
- Visits to healthcare professionals e.g. dentist
The common unavoidable absences include:
- Personal reasons as above, but not granted
- Accidental lateness
- Uncertified sickness
- Stress related absence
These are the absences that you will want to limit and where your absence management strategy comes in.
The single highest impact absence that greaty impacts the economy, individuals and society. In the United Kingdom in 2020 1.8% of working hours were lost due to sickness absence.
Although sickness is the biggest impacting absence type we are seeing the lowest sickness absence rates since records began in 1995.
During the height of the pandemic in the UK, 14% of all sickness absences were attributed to the coronavirus.
The government survey shows that sickness rates are actually trending down and saw a significant fall in 2020.
Breaking down the sickness category down further you find that the most common sicknesses causing absences are coughs, colds and flu; nausea and diarrhoea. These account for 26% of sickness absences.
Mental health conditions come in 5th on the list at 11%. This includes stress, depression and anxiety.
Unsurprisingly musculoskeletal problems are also high on the list with 15%. Likely caused by the rise of office jobs; this category covers neck and back pain and upper limb problems.
Another interesting statistic is the sickness rate by age group breakdown. The absence rate is pretty consistent through the years up till the 50s when they start to pick up by a whole percentage point.
Also known as vacation if you're stateside, it is the
Our data shows that a massive 88% of absences are holiday absences. This is great news, it means employees are getting time to recharge and be with their families.
Research into the effect of holidays on employees concludes that taking time off is a great opprtunity to replenish lost resources and to increase employee hapiness. Said happiness can help act as a buffer for any workplace stress upon return to work.