Absenteeism in Organizations
KeywordsPersonal Characteristic Transformational Leadership Inspire Motivation Employee Absence Absence Period
Absenteeism is the failure to report for work as scheduled.
Introduction: The Problems and Consequences of Absenteeism
Absenteeism is a problem in many organizations. It has a number of negative consequences for society at large, organizations, colleagues, and employees.
Apart from the economic consequences such as sickness allowances, healthcare treatment, pay for temps or overtime pay, lost productivity, etc., there are also a number of personal costs. For the involved person, sickness absence may have major consequences such as a poorer life quality, loss of identity if away from work for long periods of time, lack of social contact to colleagues, worries about own health, loss of professional competences, and perhaps even discharge. There are also consequences for the colleagues of the absentee, such as increased workload when substituting the absent colleague.
The many negative consequences mean that absenteeism is on the agenda in many HR departments. Hence, the hunt for a final solution to eliminate absenteeism has started in many organizations. Also in academia, research in finding explanations for absenteeism has an ever increasing attention.
In many organizations, absenteeism has been allowed to grow as it has been tabooed as belonging to privacy. Today absenteeism is considered a natural and integrated focus area in many organizations. This is a positive development as absenteeism should be considered a strategic issue for any management.
Absenteeism is higher within the public sector than in the private sector. There can be many reasons for the relatively high absenteeism in the public sector such as greater social responsibility, less focus on the bottom line, other types of jobs, and other types of professionals. However, there is a great variety in absenteeism across comparable organizations within the same sector with similar profiles for jobs and employees. This may indicate that absenteeism is not just a matter of health, but also a result of local initiatives to reduce absenteeism, management procedures, and absence cultures. Hence, individual workplace policies and practices either increase or decrease the motivation to come to work.
The Concept of Absence
The traditional definition of absence is the “failure to be present at the appropriate time and in the appropriate place to meet the terms of the contract” (Gibson 1966). The contract can be more or less formal.
Later in literature the above definition is developed into “an individual’s lack of physical presence at a given location and time when there is a social expectation for him or her to be there” (Martocchio and Harrison 1993).
For both definitions it applies that absenteeism is identified based on a concrete, measurable behavior – in other words, whether or not the person is (physically) present or not. But today an increasing number of employees work from home or in virtual offices, and thus the physical presence is not always decisive. Today, an employee is thus considered absent if the organization expects him – stated in a formal or informal contract –to handle a number of tasks and/or functions which are then not handled, regardless of the physical position of the employee. Therefore a more contemporary and relevant definition would be: “Absenteeism is the failure to report for work as scheduled” (Johns 2008).
The described definitions do not distinguish between the different varieties of presence or absenteeism. Employees may hold four roles, they can be present at the workplace when (1) healthy and (2) ill and absent when (3) ill and (4) healthy.
Managers have to pay special attention to employees who are ill but at work, employees who are healthy but not at work, and employees who are ill and not at work where the reason for the illness is caused by work-related issues.
When employees are ill but still go to work, the so-called presenteeism, it has a number of consequences. Apart from the discomfort of the employees and the risk of being ill for a longer period of time, the employees are less effective. There is also a higher risk of failures and accidents and of infecting colleagues.
The reasons for employees to come to work despite being ill may be fear of losing their jobs, to miss out on promotion, or losing earned income. It may also be out of consideration for customers or clients or colleagues so that they are not given more tasks or are called to work when supposed to be off duty. It may also simply be to avoid that own tasks are piling up on the desk. Finally, it might also be due to the company’s absence culture including the manager’s reaction to and handling of the absence.
Voluntary and Involuntary Absence
Normally there are two types of absence – absence that cannot be avoided and absence that involves a certain degree of voluntariness or choice. In literature the two types of absence have different designations such as voluntary/type B absence/black/not certified contrary to involuntary/type A absence/white/certified (e.g., Chadwick-Jones et al. 1973; Geurts 1994; Steers and Rhodes 1978; Thomson et al. 2000).
The standard for unavoidable, involuntary absence is subject to interpretation and can be set by the individual or by consensus in the work groups or departments (Chadwick-Jones et al. 1973).
Absenteeism is thus a result of the environment and surroundings of an individual person as well as an actual choice. A person’s decision either to be absent or present may thus be influenced by contrary issues. Some persons are therefore absent even if healthy from a medical point of view, whereas others go to work despite being ill.
The involuntary absence is certified illness or other legitimate periods of absence such as funeral attendance, illness in the family, and transportation problems due to weather. This kind of absence is outside the immediate control of the person.
The voluntary absence is not related to illness and is under the immediate control of the person. Voluntary absence is based on an individual choice or the individual’s norm. This kind of absence is avoidable and can be affected by various motivational factors.
In practice, it is of course difficult to distinguish between the two kinds of absence. In Denmark there are no estimates for the proportions of the two kinds of absence. In Holland it has been estimated that up to 85 % of all illness periods are based on an actual choice or a decision taken by the individual rather than on the advice of a doctor (Geurts 1994). Part of this absence is naturally actual, short-term illness, such as the flu, where the doctor is not ordinarily consulted.
It is important to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary absence when it comes to how absence is measured and used in analyses forming the basis for absence initiatives in organizations. Since exclusively voluntary absence is influenced by various motivational factors, this kind of absence should be in focus. The voluntary absence is often shorter periods of time, whereas the involuntary absence is related to illness and often results in longer periods of absence (Chadwick-Jones et al. 1982). In statistical analyses, the number of absence periods is recommended as a measure for the voluntary absence rather than the duration as a count of days. It might also be recommendable to omit absence periods of certain durations in order to avoid absence which most probably may be labeled as involuntary, in the analyses.
In order to identify a pattern, it is still a good idea to register all kinds of absence including a number of days and periods and also the weekdays for the absence. But for cause-effect analyses, where the intention is to explain the voluntary absence by means of a number of factors such as well-being, strain, age, gender, etc., absence periods are recommended.
Short- and Long-Term Absence
It is important to distinguish between short- and long-term absence since the reasons for the two kinds of absence may differ. Long-term absence is often a better indicator for the employee’s health, whereas the short-term and frequent absence is more often related to the job satisfaction in the broad sense – that is, the voluntary absence as mentioned above.
All short-term absence is however not related to an actual choice to be absent (for instance, funeral attendance), and at the same time, the long-term absence may also be related to the job situation; it may be caused by strain. It is therefore always important to focus on the reasons for both short- and long-term absence in order to find out if something can be changed in the work environment.
It is particularly important to follow up on short-term absence, if there is a pattern in the absence since this may indicate that the reasons for the absence are to be found in the work environment. Some employees are frequently absent on special weekdays, Mondays or Fridays or after holidays. Others have increased absence after certain tasks and others again are generally absent more frequently.
It is always important to follow up on long-term absence. The reason for this is that there is a risk that the connection to the workplace becomes more unstable or even disappears. It is thus important to contact the ill employee so as to secure that he/she quickly gets back, possibly on changed conditions.
The Determinants of Absence
Absence is a multidisciplinary research area. Thus, it has been viewed as a form of worker deviance (sociology), a result of labor-leisure trade-off (economics), a reaction to illness (medicine), a violation of the contract (law), and many more (Johns 2008). As a consequence of the multi-disciplinarity in the research, the explanatory determinants of absence are related to many different areas, such as personal characteristics of the employee and the manager, factors related to the job situation, the manager behavior, and the absence cultures.
Most previous research on absence takes its spring in an individual approach. This approach relies on the assumption that motivation to be absent from work is determined by either personal characteristics or individual responses to the job situation.
One of the most acknowledged contributions to absence literature is “A Process Model of Employee Attendance” (Steers and Rhodes 1978). This model describes how personal characteristics, e.g., gender and age, directly influence the ability to attend work and indirectly influence attendance motivation, the latter having the primary impact on attendance.
Personal characteristics influence the individual’s values and expectations as regards his/her job, and these again influence job satisfaction. Job satisfaction directly influences attendance motivation. Pressure to attend, such as work group norms and work ethics, directly influences attendance motivation. Attendance motivation is furthermore a result of the individual’s evaluation of the job situation. Thus, the job situation, such as the management style and co-worker relations, influences job satisfaction, and job satisfaction influences attendance motivation. The model is named “process” because of its cyclical nature, where attendance behavior has a reverse effect on the job situation, pressures to attend, and finally attendance motivation.
The employees’ personal characteristics such as gender and age have proven to be of major importance for absenteeism but also their managers’ personal characteristics influence the absenteeism – directly as well as in interaction with the employees’ personal characteristics.
Research shows that managers’ personal characteristics interact with their employees’ personal characteristics in the way that the bigger the differences between manager and employees as to personal characteristics, the less attracted are the employees to the organization (Perry et al. 1999). The assumption behind this is that individuals who are alike as to demography also share values and opinions. Individuals who are alike within the organization are more inclined to have the same attitude to absenteeism, and they will to a great extent develop the same absence behavior (Rentsch and Steel 2003). The interaction between the managers’ gender and those of the employees has been confirmed empirically (Løkke 2008).
Management’s Importance for the Absence Culture
An absence culture is a key construct defined as “the set of shared understandings about absence legitimacy in a given organization and the established “custom and practice” of employee absence behaviour and its control (e.g., predominant supervisory styles and worker beliefs about co-workers’ attendance behaviour)” (Johns and Nicholson 1982, p. 136). Furthermore, Chadwick-Jones et al. (1982, p. 7) state that “The nature of this culture is known by employees, though partially and imperfectly, but to that extent absences are regulated by the norm. Thus, the norm is what they collectively recognize (usually with management collusion) as suitable and appropriate for people in their job, their unit, their organization, given the particular conditions, both physical and social, of tasks, pay, status, and discipline.”
The definitions above shed light on managers’ role in reducing employee absence.
The manager influences the culture in three ways. First and foremost the absence culture is influenced by the manager’s own absence behavior because the manager is the role model for the employees. The employees observe the absence behavior of their manager and thus learn what is legitimate, and then they adjust their own behavior according to this norm. Investigations in the private as well as in the public sectors show a clear cohesion between managers having a substantial absenteeism and their employees having a substantial absenteeism (Kristensen et al. 2006; Løkke 2008). To some extent, managers can thus control the absenteeism among their employees by being a good example.
The way in which the manager talks about the absence norm and the consequences of absenteeism for the organization also influences the absence culture. Add to this the disciplinary consequences of the absence which the manager uses, such as summons for sickness status meetings, written warnings, less bonus, fewer challenging working tasks, and fewer development opportunities.
Finally, the absence culture is influenced by the general leadership style of the manager. Results show a link between long-term absence for females and poor management quality measured by the extent to which the immediate superior ensures that the individual staff member has good development opportunities, gives high priority to job satisfaction, is a good work planner, and is good at solving conflicts (Lund et al. 2005). Furthermore, it seems that absence decreases if managers perform a transformational leadership style (Westerlund et al. 2010; Zhu et al. 2005). A transformational management style is characterized by the four i’s – inspiring motivation, individualized considerations, intellectual stimulation, and idealized influence (Avolio et al. 1991); thus there are individual considerations for the needs and working skills of the employee. The transformational manager also acts as role model and is a good example and continuously expresses the values on which his management style is based.
Conclusion: From Sick to Healthy Absenteeism
All organizations should work for a natural and healthy level of absenteeism for employees and managers. The aim is not to eliminate all absence because this would mean that employees at times are coming to work although they are ill, because flus, fevers, and the like will always exist. This so-called presenteeism is unhealthy for the organizations because it results in less efficiency, more accidents, a risk of infecting colleagues, and a risk of being absent for a longer period. Reasons and consequences of presenteeism are a growing research area.
Apart from taking into consideration a certain level of healthy absenteeism, the organizations should not have any excuses for not dealing with the sick absenteeism, understood as the absence that is caused by working conditions and which can be influenced by various initiatives.
Research shows that the reasons for absenteeism are to be found in the working environment, including the management, the job characteristics, and the prevailing absence cultures. Also a number of financial determinants are important such as wages, number of working hours, sick leave allowances, the financial fluctuations in society, etc. Finally, the personal characteristics, dispositions, and of course the health play an important role.
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