Employee absenteeism is a significant source of concern and expense for businesses both large and small. Workplace absences have been estimated by the Centers for Disease Control to cost businesses in the US $225.8 billion annually.

Another study found that costs due to unscheduled absences by hourly employees averaged $3,600 annually per employee.

While employee absenteeism due to illness or other issues is an unavoidable fact of life, there are many measures that managers and employers can take to minimize employee absenteeism and to better manage it in general. In this complete guide to absence management, we examine the steps that managers and employers can take to measure and reduce the impact of employee absenteeism in the workplace.

Employee Absenteeism: How to Measure It

Although employee absenteeism is an issue for any business that employs workers, many managers and employers fail to institute a systematic approach to absence management. One of the most important steps managers can take to address absence management is to proactively monitor and measure the rate of absence of departments and of individual workers. There are several methods for achieving this:

Lost Time Rate

The Lost Time Rate is used to calculate the percentage of total available time that has been lost due to employee absence. This is useful for measuring the rate of absenteeism among specific groups of employees, such as individual departments. The lost time rate is calculated as follows:

(Total hours—or days—lost to absence for the period)
_____________________________________________________ x 100
Total scheduled hours 1n the period

For example, if a team with four employees, each scheduled to work 40 hours a week, missed a combined total of 10 hours during that week, the lost time rate for that workweek equals 6.25 percent.

Frequency Rate

The frequency rate is used to calculate the average number of absences per employee as a percentage. It doesn’t factor in the length of absences, or whether one employee had a higher number of absences as an individual.

Number of periods of absence
_______________________________ x 100
Number of employees

For example, if a company has ten employees and during the course of one week, there are two periods of absence (regardless of length), the frequency rate for that period is 20%.

The Bradford Factor

Primarily used in the UK, the Bradford Factor, or Bradford Index, can be a useful way of measuring the organizational impact of individual employee absences, regardless of where the business is based.

The Bradford Factor can be calculated using free online tools, or as follows:

Over an annual period: Periods of absence x Periods of absence x Total Duration (in days) of absence.

For example, if an individual employee has ten periods of absence over the course of a year, each one day in duration, the Bradford Factor for that employee is 1,000.

The Bradford Factor is used to give additional weight to the number of periods of absence in relation to the total number of days absent in the belief that each individual period of absence has a significantly greater negative impact on the organization than the number of consecutive days missed.

Typically, the Bradford Factor is used in conjunction with trigger points. As an employee’s Bradford Factor exceed thresholds set by the organization, a manager or employer will take a predetermined action. This can range from an interview to discuss the underlying issues causing an employee to take excessive periods of absence, all the way up to disciplinary action or dismissal.

The Bradford Factor is not without controversy, as some legitimate absences—such as regular weekly absences due to treatment for a chronic condition—will result in a high Bradford Factor score.

As with most facets of human resources, metrics such as the Bradford Factor must be employed selectively, and take individual circumstances into account.

Nonetheless, many businesses have found the Bradford Factor of great use in assessing and consequencing the impact of individual absences on the organization, and have even found that the competitive aspect of maintaining a low Bradford Factor score can help reduce absences.

While accurately measuring both group and individual absences using the above methods alone will not result in reduced absenteeism, each method can be extremely useful in identifying trends and developing resources to address the underlying causes. Without accurate data to diagnose the problem of excessive employee absence, it will prove difficult to manage and cure.


Primary Causes of Employee Absenteeism

There are many causes that lead to increased employee absenteeism. Though one may typically associate absence with physical illness, the leading cause of absenteeism, according to the National Institutes of Health, is depression.

Additionally, a study by Morneau Sheppel found that 52 percent of employee absences were not actually due to illness, regardless of the reason given. It can be useful for managers to divide the causes of absenteeism into two broad categories: motivational and non-motivational.

Of the nine primary causes of employee absenteeism, as identified by Forbes, four of them can be classed as motivational absences. These include:

  • Bullying and harassment
  • Job burnout, stress, and low morale
  • Personal stress (outside of work)
  • Disengagement
  • Job hunting

Examples of non-motivational absences include:

  • Childcare and eldercare
  • Depression
  • Illness
  • Injuries due to on-the-job or personal accidents

Partial shifts are one of the most insidious forms of absenteeism. Partial shifts are often a result of lateness, extending breaks beyond the allotted time, and leaving early. Online time clock software can be invaluable in managing partial shift absenteeism.

While the above is not a comprehensive list, it does cover the most common forms of employee absenteeism. Along with measuring and identifying trends in individual and group absenteeism, it is vital for managers and employers to identify the underlying, root causes of absenteeism and move to address them.

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Strategies for Combating Absenteeism

While a certain level of absenteeism is inevitable, there are concrete steps employers and managers can take to manage absences and reduce them. Here are five of the most powerful.

Flexible Scheduling

There are various types of flexible scheduling options, one of the most common being flextime. Flextime typically allows employees to choose their own starting and finishing hours, as long as they still complete a specified number of hours of work per week. Offering flextime can have a significant impact on attracting and retaining employees.

A recent survey found that 80 percent of respondents said that work flexibility was the most important factor when evaluating a new job opportunity. Perhaps surprisingly, work flexibility beat out both salary and work-life balance, which were tied at 74 percent.

Given that one of the most significant benefits to employees in having a flexible schedule is improved work-life balance, it’s clear that offering employees flexible scheduling options can dramatically improve hiring and retention, and help significantly reduce employee absenteeism.

Remote Working

Taking flexibility a step further, remote working allows working from home—or anywhere else—for a portion or the whole of an employee’s scheduled working hours. While remote working does require trust on behalf of the employer, there are many tools that can be employed to ensure that productivity doesn’t suffer. After all, only seven percent of employees surveyed named the office as their location of choice if they need to work on an important work-related project.

Project management tools such as Asana and communications platforms such as Slack can help keep projects on track and ensure that collaboration doesn’t suffer. If your remote team live in close proximity to each other, scheduling regular face-to-face time can help ensure teamwork and company culture doesn’t suffer. But even if your team is distributed globally, video conferencing tools such as Zoom can help keep everyone on the same page.

By eliminating stressful commutes, encouraging work/life balance, and allowing greater flexibility in terms of scheduling, allowing employees the freedom to work remotely can significantly reduce absenteeism and increase retention.

Return To Work Interviews

Sitting down with an employee shortly after a period of absence—preferably on their first day back at work—can be a powerful tool for managers in reducing absenteeism. Not only does it provide the opportunity to welcome an employee back to work, but it also gives managers an opportunity to uncover any underlying reasons for the absence, including whether job-related stress or overwork is a contributing factor.

Conducting return to work interviews also lets employees know that absence is being actively monitored and managed. Having to explain the reason for an absence in person may also lead to greater honesty between the employee and manager.

It is important for return for work interviews to not come across as a punitive measure. Most absences are for legitimate reasons, and these interviews should be seen as an opportunity for managers to show that an employee has value to the organization, as well as to advise employees to avail themselves of any employer-sponsored support or wellness programs.

Combat Presenteeism

Sometimes in their zeal to reduce employee absenteeism, managers and employers can inadvertently encourage presenteeism – defined as “the practice of being present at one’s place of work for more hours than is required, especially as a manifestation of insecurity about one’s job.”

Presenteeism can take several forms. Employees may work longer hours than required, use their holidays or other mandated time off to catch up on work rather than disconnect, and attend work while either mentally or physically ill.

While presenteeism is much more difficult to measure than absenteeism, its effects can be devastating. In fact, many studies show that presenteeism comes at a much higher cost to employers than absenteeism due to illness or other causes. One calculated the cost of presenteeism in the U.S. to be more than $150 billion a year.

Somewhat counterintuitively, one of the best ways employers can combat presenteeism is by offering paid sick days and leave. Employees who attend work despite an illness, due to fear of lost wages or disciplinary action, are unlikely to be productive.

Beyond individual productivity, sick employees are likely to make fellow team members sick, or at the very least dampen morale. Perhaps correspondingly, a growing number of employers are offering paid sick days. In the long-term, this is likely to be a good investment.

Recent studies have shown conclusively that if given ten days of annual sick leave, employees are far more likely to receive vital preventative medicine such as cholesterol checks and mammograms. In this and many other ways, offering paid sick leave can help combat both presenteeism and keep employees healthy and on the job longer.

Smarter Scheduling

Even with all of the tools and platforms allowing employers, managers, and employees to stay connected, there are many industries—such as retail, healthcare, and food service—where working remotely or on a flextime schedule is not an option. At the same time, traditional, often cumbersome scheduling tools such as Excel spreadsheets and printed schedules offer little flexibility and utility to employers and managers alike.

At their worst, they can create confusion amongst fellow employees and managers and lead to both partial shifts and unplanned absences, which in turn has a negative impact on morale. Automating the scheduling process with dedicated software reduces the burden on managers, and gives greater flexibility—such as the ability to easily swap shifts, show availability, and request vacation time—to employees.

The ability for both employees and managers to handle all of this on the go with their mobile devices renders any other scheduling process obsolete and greatly reduces the likelihood of absences due to scheduling conflicts and errors. Streamlining the scheduling process also frees up bandwidth for employers and managers to focus on other vital business and personal considerations.

Final Thoughts

Employee absence, planned or unplanned, is an inescapable reality for any business, large or small. While absence can’t be eliminated altogether, better absence management can minimize the negative impact on the organization as a whole.

Accurately measuring individual and group absences, spotting trends, and proactively addressing them through methods such as flexible scheduling and building remote teams can help reduce absences and improve employee retention.

Knowing when to encourage a team member to stay home or consult a physician rather than showing up for work can help minimize presenteeism. Deploying state-of-the-art scheduling software can reduce the burden on both managers and employees and significantly reduce absenteeism by eliminating scheduling conflicts.

Each business is unique, and will likely benefit from a combination of all the strategies outlined above. One common factor is that all businesses will benefit from taking a proactive approach to absence management, rather than just accepting absences as inevitable.