Staffing Management

4 proven steps for tackling employee absenteeism

By Dan Whitehead

Jan. 6, 2023


  • Identifying the cause of employee absenteeism not only helps uncover deeper-rooted issues — More

  • Establishing an employee attendance policy promotes transparency across your company — More

  • Keeping your employees engaged makes them more likely to be productive and present at work — More

  • Implementing a scheduling process that is reliable and flexible will tackle a number of issues that would otherwise increase the likelihood of employee absenteeism. — More

A common yet highly disruptive issue any business owner or human resources professional has to deal with is employee absenteeism. This sort of employee absence refers to unscheduled absences beyond what is acceptable and planned within a company’s policy. Acceptable absences include things like paid time off (PTO), sick leave, or unpaid time off someone might take as part of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Having regularly absent employees results in lost productivity, as unplanned absences create extra pressure and more work for other team members. This extra work could lead to burnout. The causes of excessive absenteeism can also be indicative of deep-rooted issues, such as low employee morale or a toxic work environment. 

Employee absenteeism is a perennial problem, but it is particularly damaging in the shift-based service industries. According to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, service industries have the highest absenteeism rate in the US economy.’s own research backs this up. In our 2021 survey, 31% of businesses listed disruption to shifts caused by employee absenteeism as one of their biggest problems.

With the right tools and data in hand, managers can reduce employee absenteeism as well as identify and tackle its underlying causes.  

1. Identify why employees are frequently absent

Your business is a complicated machine. Just as you wouldn’t try to fix a problem with your car or computer by randomly replacing parts, you can’t successfully address persistent absenteeism in your company without knowing where the problem is.

Using employee scheduling software can tie together all of your shift schedules and time clock information. This joined-up approach allows you to query that data in order to spot the patterns of absenteeism and identify the who, where, and when of the problem.

Identifying the frequent trouble spots is important as the root causes of absenteeism can occur at different organizational levels.

  • Specific staff members: If a particular employee is persistently missing workdays, it’s worth checking if there is a valid reason. There may be problems that can be addressed without escalating to disciplinary action.
  • Specific shifts: If you find that absenteeism is a recurring issue only on certain shifts, it could be a problem with a particular shift leader or similar personnel issues that are making employees avoid that shift.
  • Specific locations: If you see red flags for absenteeism at a particular outlet or office, this may be a sign of managerial problems at that location. It could be an indication of something more sinister such as workplace bullying or workplace harassment. There could also be a local or geographical context — is that location particularly hard to reach on public transport?

Now that you know more about the source of your employee absenteeism, you can start addressing it.

2. Establish a clear employee attendance policy

Absences have immediate financial costs for a business. Absences related to mental health issues alone results in a $47.6 billion annual loss to the US economy through lost productivity. There should, therefore, be no ambiguity over attendance.

Employees will always require sick days or will be unable to work due to personal issues. Regardless, they should know what is required of them in such cases through a clearly defined absenteeism policy. This way, they are also aware of the disciplinary procedure that will kick in should they not meet their end of the agreement.

Your company needs a clear and accessible employee attendance policy. A good attendance policy should include:

  • How much notice employees must give if they can’t come in
  • What absence rate or number of absences is considered unacceptable
  • How many days of “no-call” or unexcused absences will be considered grounds for immediate dismissal

When considering attendance data with regard to employee absenteeism, it is especially important to take absence frequency into account rather than just how many days were missed. Ten days of absence in a row caused by a serious illness tells a very different story than 10 days of last-minute absences spread across the year that always fall on Mondays, for instance.

3. Implement incentives like employee wellness programs

Increased workloads and burnout are major contributors to low morale and absenteeism. Therefore, looking out for your employees’ physical and mental well-being has long-term benefits for them as well as your bottom line. 

Implementing employee wellness programs is a great way to achieve this. Such programs promote and encourage your employees to maintain good physical and mental health. 

A wellness program can take on many different forms. Some common examples include:

  • Installing fitness centers at your offices — this might be trickier for small businesses. If you have the space and resources, it’s a great way to help your team stay in shape.
  • Commuting incentives — encouraging your staff members to get to work on foot or by bicycle instead of using their cars keeps them and the environment healthy.
  • Covering expenses for things like gym membership, yoga classes, or even sports equipment.   

4. Create a reliable and collaborative scheduling procedure

Unhappy employees become disengaged and prone to excessive absences, and erratic work schedules are frequent causes of this disconnect. Creating reliable and predictable shifts gives workers more control over their work-life balance and allows them to plan their time with less stress. Research makes the connection clear: lower employee engagement results in increased employee absenteeism.

Implement predictive scheduling

Investing in predictive scheduling will not be optional for companies operating in certain US states and cities. Predictive scheduling laws are already on the books in Vermont, Oregon, San Francisco, Berkeley, Emeryville, San Jose, Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Eight states have pending legislation on the subject.

Whether you are legally obliged to implement such a system or not, it’s worth adopting the most common aspects of predictive scheduling:

  • Changes to schedules should be communicated well in advance.
  • Employees should have sufficient rest between shifts — between nine and 11 hours.
  • Avoid the practice of “clopening,” where the same employee closes up at night and reopens the next morning.
  • Offer available shifts to current employees before taking on temporary staff.

Following these basic rules will encourage a more engaged, happy, and loyal workforce and reduce employee absenteeism.

Offer collaborative scheduling

Absenteeism can also be a sign that employees are unable to work the shifts they’ve been assigned. One way around this is to give employees the ability to have more say in which shifts they work or even swap shifts with colleagues. Allowing this involvement in the scheduling process helps employees fit work around their other commitments.

Not only does this collaboration remove one of the common excuses for missing work or tardiness, but research also supports the idea that offering employees more control over when they work directly addresses the causes of employee absenteeism. A study by Future Forum shows how workplace flexibility means employees are more productive and more connected to their workplace culture. 

There are two methods of introducing more collaborative scheduling to your company — shift bids and shift swaps. With shift bids, the manager puts out a list of the shifts that need to be filled, employees bid to be assigned the ones most convenient to them, and then the manager makes the final choice from those who put themselves forward. With shift swaps, workers are able to trade shifts on an ad-hoc basis while the manager signs off on the swaps to ensure full staff coverage is maintained. In both cases, employees get more control over when they work without undermining the manager’s authority.

The prospect of changing the way your shifts are assigned can seem daunting, but employee scheduling software such as has features to streamline the process for easy implementation.

Employee absenteeism is your alarm call

A high level of employee absenteeism is a sign that something isn’t working in your business. Consider it a warning that staff morale is low, and there are scheduling and managerial issues that need to be addressed to stem the tide. Data from your employee scheduling software will identify these pain points, and the responses listed above will tackle not just the symptoms of absenteeism but the cause as well. Seize the opportunity to make your business work better, and you’ll not only solve your immediate absence problems but also create a happier, more engaged workforce for long-term benefits.

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