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What Is Sickness Absenteeism?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sickness absenteeism occurs when employees miss work for reasons stemming from health problems. The rate of sickness absenteeism is linked to the overall health of the workforce and also to specific factors in each individual profession. Workplace policies and national standards also impact the rate of sickness absenteeism as do cultural norms and personal attitudes among workers.

The overall health of a given workforce population plays a crucial role in determining the rate at which employees fall ill and require time off. Physical characteristics of a workforce contribute directly to this rate. A workforce that is overweight, sedentary and prone to smoking and drinking will, all else being equal, have a higher rate of absenteeism simply because these characteristics lead to a lower overall level of wellness. Some employers consciously take steps to promote healthy living practices among workers in order to reduce this rate, a practice that has the added benefit of lowering insurance rates across the employee pool.

Medical standards impact the rate at which employees absent themselves from work due to illness. In many nations, medical professionals are largely responsible for determining which illnesses are of sufficient severity to warrant absence from work. These standards evolve over time. For example, the rate of sickness absenteeism was higher in the United States in the years after the World War II than it had been in the decade before the war largely because standards and practices had changed within the medical community.

The characteristics of Individual workers have a pronounced impact on rates of sickness absenteeism. Employees who have a more negative view of their health, regardless of objective criteria, are apt to be sick more often. Older workers are likely to be sick for longer, a fact that may stem from the need for a longer period of convalescence. Workers in jobs that are more physically or emotionally demanding may have higher rates of absenteeism as a result of the specific physical and mental demands of those jobs and the injury and stress that result.

Absenteeism and job satisfaction are closely linked as well. Employees who are happy in their work and feel that they have adequate time and resources to do that work well are less apt to call in sick. Workers who are dissatisfied or overburdened are more likely to take sick leave. This may stem from psychological factors but may also be linked to the physiological impact of stress.

Close management oversight of sickness absenteeism tends to reduce rates. Employees respond to closer oversight by reducing the number of times that they call in sick without cause. Careful attention to the health of a workforce is also helpful in decreasing the overall rate of illness among workers.

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Discussion Comments
By AnswerMan — On May 28, 2014

I think my company's absenteeism rates are comparable to the national average, but we have a human resources assistant who is in charge of managing absenteeism. She keeps track of all the sick days claimed by employees and watches for patterns. If a particular employee always seems to call in sick on Mondays or Fridays, then she'll quietly call him or her into her office and discuss the situation.

We have a fairly liberal sickness and absence policy, but we also don't have enough employees to cover the duties of absent workers every week. If she can encourage people to reconsider calling in sick when it's more of a personal time-off situation, then the rest of us won't feel so overworked.

By Buster29 — On May 27, 2014

I've worked for a few places with very strict sickness and absence policies. If an employee called into work claiming to be ill, the company would only accept a doctor's handwritten note. If the employee was healthy enough to make the phone call, he or she was healthy enough to come into work. As a result, some of my co-workers spread a lot of contagious diseases to the rest of us rather than risk being punished financially for missing work.

Other places had a much more liberal absence due to sickness policy. We were all allowed to call in sick five times a year if we even suspected what we had was contagious. The managers figured it was better to allow one employee to stay home rather than risk infecting five other healthy employees at the office. If it was a 24 or 48 hour stomach bug or bad cold, no doctor visit was required.

I'd say that the potential for abuse is always there with any absenteeism policy, but managers need to understand that a sick employee is also going to be a less productive employee.

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