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What is absenteeism?

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Last editedApr 20214 min read

Absenteeism is not necessarily a weakness or a setback, and while it certainly can cause a great deal of frustration and concern, it shouldn’t ever be seen as an unresolvable problem. There are negative consequences that might come with employee absenteeism, but if you take the time to understand what causes it and how to manage it with empathy, both your business and your employee will come out of it better off.

Absenteeism meaning

So, what is absenteeism exactly? The absenteeism definition as according to Oxford Dictionary is “the practice of regularly staying away from work or school without good reason.” It needs to be a consistent, ongoing issue to be deemed absenteeism, meaning missing a couple days of work doesn’t count. Absenteeism is a habitual absence from work, far beyond what would be considered acceptable.

A good business will allow some degree of grace when it comes to legitimate issues that keep an employee from coming to work, like family emergencies or sudden illnesses, but absenteeism exceeds any period of absence that would be expected or allowed, and exceeds the annual leave and sick leave designated to the employee. 

It doesn’t need to be consecutive days of absence; absenteeism can also be a noticeable pattern of excessive absence even if they do come to work in between. If you have an employee who calls in sick frequently, missing days of work at a time without any indication of chronic illness, this is absenteeism.

Absenteeism can cause a reduction in productivity, an increase in costs, and it can have a negative impact on overall employee morale. It can also make it difficult to manage a team in general, not knowing when or for how long you’ll have your full team available.

Why does absenteeism occur?

In order to prevent absenteeism in your workplace, you need to understand why exactly it happens, and there’s a variety of potential reasons.

The reason for absence does not need to be hidden for absenteeism to occur. Even if the employee notifies management of their absence and explains the reasoning, so long as a pattern forms or the absence extends past an acceptable level, it is considered absenteeism.

Having said that, many cases of absenteeism are the cause of an underlying problem that the employee may not feel safe or comfortable sharing.

Below are some of the most common causes of absenteeism:

Workplace frustration

Burnout is certainly a major cause of absenteeism. If an employee feels overworked and underappreciated, their stress and frustration levels might hold them back from coming into work, either as a means of letting the issue subside a little, or out of fear that going to work will only intensify the problem. It may be a lack of healthy work-life balance causing burnout.

Besides burnout, absenteeism could be the result of a general lack of motivation at work. If an employee is dissatisfied, dispassionate and disengaged, they may find it easy to simply not turn up.

Mental Illness

Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are of course one of the most prominent causes of absenteeism. When suffering from mental illness, it can be very easy to feel misunderstood, so employees may hide their genuine distress out of fear that their company won’t be sympathetic or facilitative, instead simply not coming in to work to avoid the issue escalating.

Mental illness can cause physical ailments and feelings of physical weakness, which might leave employees feeling incapable of making it to work.

This doesn’t just apply to offices; with so many businesses now working remotely, it’s important to recognise that absenteeism means the employee is unavailable to fulfil their duties. Even working from home, an employee suffering from mental illness may still feel incapable of getting to work, perhaps more so with increased feelings of isolation.


If an employee is a victim of workplace harassment, they will likely feel unsafe or uncomfortable sharing a workspace with their harasser, particularly if they’ve raised the issue and feel it hasn’t been addressed properly. They may choose not to disclose the issue out of fear that it will affect their own job security or safety, so instead choose to avoid the workplace altogether.


An employee exhibiting absenteeism may be experiencing bereavement. Dealing with grief can make it extremely difficult to manage everyday tasks, and there’s no time limit on how long it may take someone to recover. An employee may be overcome with grief and feel unable to perform their duties.


Your employee may at times need to act as a caregiver for a child, elder, or an unwell loved one if their primary caregiver is unable to fulfil their duties. For instance, your employee may hire a babysitter or nanny who falls sick, and thus they need to stay home to look after their child. If this continues to happen regularly, it becomes absenteeism.

How to prevent absenteeism

Having a strong, open relationship with your team ensures everybody feels comfortable expressing their concerns, challenges and limitations. A manager should take responsibility for fostering a safe space where everyone in the team should feel welcome and understood.

While it might be frustrating, your first response to absenteeism shouldn’t be anger, and you shouldn’t deal with an absentee employee with aggression, but rather with empathy, understanding, and a willingness to listen. You’re not going to make matters any better by simply scolding, or worse, cutting the employee without at least trying to find out the root cause of the problem.

Chances are, there is an underlying issue that needs to be addressed, and the sooner you can figure out why your employee is skipping out on work, the sooner you’ll be able to come up with solutions to help them feel better about coming in.

Work together to identify and solve the issue, and always make it clear that you value your team and you have their best interests at heart. The only way to reach your goals as a business is to ensure the workers who keep it going are happy and motivated.

It’s important to remember that some employees may feel they benefit from more flexible working environments. Perhaps they feel more comfortable and productive working from home. Always remind your employees that you’re open to flexibility, you want to do what you need to do to bring the best out of your team.

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