September 13, 2018

The Complete Guide to Reducing Employee Absences


Businesses large and small are struggling with systematically reducing employee absenteeism. The Center for Disease Control estimates that workplace absences cost businesses in the US up to $225.8 billion annually. Another study found that costs due to the unscheduled absences of hourly employees averaged $3,600 annually per employee.

In this comprehensive guide, we will examine how managers and employers can measure employee absenteeism in their organization and strategically work on reducing it.

How to measure the employee absenteeism rate

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employee absenteeism rate for full-time wage and salary workers is 2.9, although this rate goes as high as 4% for healthcare support and as low as 2.1% for management and architecture and engineering. Here is how you can calculate the absenteeism rate in your organization and see how it measures up in the context of your industry.

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 lost to absence for the period
_____________________________________________________ x 100
Total scheduled hours in the period

Example: if a team with four employees and a 40-hour workweek misses a combined total of 10 hours during that week, the weekly lost time rate equals 6.25%.

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 10 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. The idea behind this method is that shorter individual periods of absence are significantly more disruptive to the organization than the longer ones. Therefore, the index gives additional weight to the number of periods of absence in relation to the total number of days absent.

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

(Number of periods of absence)^2 x Total duration (in days) of absence.

Example: if an individual employee has 10 periods of absence over a selected timeframe (a quartal or a year), each one day in duration, the Bradford Factor for that employee is 1,000.

Typically, the Bradford Factor is used in conjunction with trigger points. As an employee’s Bradford Factor exceeds 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 fairly, while factoring in individual circumstances.

Nonetheless, many businesses have found the Bradford Factor of great use in not only assessing the impact of individual absences on the organization, but also in reducing employee absences.

Primary causes of employee absenteeism

Though absence is typically associated 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.

To determine how to approach the goal of reducing employee absences, it can be useful for managers to determine the causes of absenteeism. Some divide them into two broad categories: motivational and non-motivational. Of the nine primary causes of employee absenteeism, as identified by Forbes, five 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

The above list is not exhaustive, but it covers the most common forms of employee absenteeism. Along with measuring and identifying trends in absenteeism, it is vital for managers and employers to identify the underlying causes and move to address them. In some cases, fostering open communication and encouraging employees to share their struggles can go a long way in reducing employee absences and alleviating their negative impact.

Strategies for reducing employee absences

Flexible work schedules

According to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, one-third of companies noted a drop in employee absenteeism after they implemented flex-time policies. Moreover, a recent survey found that 80 percent of respondents said that work flexibility was the most important factor when evaluating a new job opportunity. Curiously, work flexibility beat out both salary and work-life balance, which were tied at 74 percent.

There are various types of flexible scheduling options, one of the most common being flex-time. Flex-time typically allows employees to choose their own starting and finishing hours, as long as they are present at a defined time period which is obligatory for the entire team and they still complete a specified number of working hours per week. Offering this benefit clearly has a significant impact on attracting and retaining employees, as it enables them to arrange their working hours in line with their personal responsibilities, as well as individual productivity peaks and drops.

Remote working

Given that the office is the workplace of choice for only 7% of employees, it’s no wonder that the option of remote work—from home or anywhere else—is one of the most favored benefits for today’s workforce. Remote workers report higher work satisfaction and are less likely to churn, making a strong case for experimenting with remote work arrangements.

While remote working does require trust on behalf of the employer, there are many tools for communication and task management that ensure that productivity doesn’t suffer. The rewards might outweigh the potential risks—by eliminating stressful commutes, encouraging work/life balance, and allowing greater flexibility in terms of scheduling, top talents are more likely to stay with the organization and limit unnecessary absences.

Smarter staff scheduling

Even with all of the tools and platforms enabling teams to stay connected, there are many industries—such as retail, healthcare, and food service—where working remotely or on a flex-time 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 workers and managers and lead to both understaffing and a rise in employee absenteeism.

Automating the scheduling process with dedicated software reduces the burden on managers, and gives greater flexibility to employees. With all relevant employee and business details in the cloud and a mobile-first platform, staff members can access and update their shift schedules on the go, which 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.

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, 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 is appreciated in the organization, as well as to advise them to avail themselves of any employer-sponsored support or wellness programs.

On the flipside: combating presenteeism

While working on reducing employee absenteeism, managers can sometimes inadvertently encourage presenteeism. This issue 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. More workers opting to go to the office while sick costs employers about $150 billion to $250 billion or 60 percent of the total cost of worker illness.

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

While employee absenteeism can’t be eliminated altogether, reducing absences and improving retention is a worthy and attainable goal. Accurately measuring individual and group absences and spotting trends is the first step. Each business is unique, and will likely profit from a combination of all the strategies outlined above. One common factor is that all businesses can harness the benefits from taking a proactive approach to absence management, rather than just accepting absences as inevitable.