5 Ways to Develop Communication Around Employee Absenteeism

Businesses want their workers to feel and perform their best. Yet, employee absenteeism remains problematic for many companies across the United States.

Absenteeism occurs when personnel frequently miss work. The issue can happen for personal or medical reasons. Regardless, it can hamper workplace productivity, result in revenue losses, and cause other short- and long-term business problems.

Research indicates that approximately three percent of the U.S. workforce is absent on any given day. An absent employee cannot support a company’s operations. As such, the business, its workforce, and its customers can suffer the consequences of even a single employee’s absence.

Ultimately, there is no surefire solution to cure employee absenteeism. However, HR professionals who can manage absenteeism in the workplace are well-equipped to deal with this problem. Best of all, these professionals can educate workers about absenteeism and ensure that they can minimize its impact.

The Importance of Educating Employees

Communication can dictate a company’s culture, particularly when it comes to employee absenteeism. Why? Because if a business builds and maintains a culture that promotes open and honest communication, it can ensure that its employees know what to do if they need to miss work. At the same time, these employees will not feel anxious or worried about taking time off. Rather, workers can follow the proper protocols to notify appropriate stakeholders and ensure that the business can stay on track until they return.

HR professionals play important roles in teaching employees about absenteeism. With the right approach, these professionals can teach employees about a company’s absenteeism protocols. HR professionals can respond to concerns and questions about these protocols and verify that employees know how to follow them. Plus, they can develop and leverage clear, concise, and accurate communications to keep workers up to date regarding absenteeism.

Tips to Educate Employees About Absenteeism

Here are five tips to help HR professionals teach workers about absenteeism.

1. Collect and Analyze Data

Retrieve weekly time reports and other workplace statistics to understand employee absenteeism. HR professionals can track excused and unexcused worker absenteeism and use an absenteeism formula to assess the issue’s impact on their business. From here, HR professionals can use analytics tools to get the most value out of their absenteeism data. Once HR pros generate insights, they can share them with workers. This allows employees to understand the prevalence of absenteeism across their organization. In addition, it enables HR professionals to set the stage for employees to do their part to correct the problem.

2. Let Employees Provide Feedback

Use questionnaires and surveys to get employees’ perspectives on absenteeism. Employees can then share their feedback on why they miss work and how they feel about their organization’s absenteeism policies. Meanwhile, HR professionals can leverage employee questionnaires and surveys to fine-tune their absenteeism communications. For instance, HR pros may discover many workers are struggling with burnout. This sense of hopelessness with their jobs can lead to absenteeism. In this instance, they can educate employees about burnout and how to guard against it. Or, HR pros may find employees often show up to work even when they are too sick or distracted to be productive. If this occurs, they can teach their workers about presenteeism (where people show up to work even if they’re sick) and the dangers associated with it.

3. Discuss Absenteeism

Host meetings with workers to share details about absenteeism policies at your organization. The meetings enable HR professionals and employees to learn from one another. Initially, HR pros can provide insights into absenteeism and how employees should notify their superiors if they need to miss work. They can explain the differences between excused and unexcused absences and define other employee absenteeism terms and phrases as well. Furthermore, employees can use these meetings to share their thoughts and opinions with HR pros regarding absenteeism. They can also gain insights into how their organization can keep workers happy, healthy, and productive.

4. Be Proactive

Dedicate the time, energy, and resources necessary to educate workers about absenteeism. HR professionals should review any communications regarding absenteeism before they are sent to employees. This allows HR pros to verify that the communications are easy to understand and provide timely and relevant information to workers. HR pros should provide regular updates regarding employee absenteeism, too. This allows workers to stay in the loop about any changes to a company’s absenteeism policies.

5. Keep the Lines of Communication Open

Remain accessible to employees and ensure they can get insights into absenteeism issues at any time. HR professionals can encourage workers to reach out with any concerns or questions regarding their company’s employee absenteeism policies.

The Bottom Line: HR Professionals and Employees Can Work Together to Combat Absenteeism

Together, HR professionals and employees can help organizations remain safe, productive, and efficient. HR pros can communicate absenteeism policies to employees and workers can comply with them. As a result, HR pros and workers can minimize employee absenteeism and increase work satisfaction levels overall.


Workplace Presenteeism Redefined

The majority of organizations today have employee support programs to help with workplace absenteeism.

Examples include sick days, short term disability, long term disability, return-to-work, workplace accommodation, vacation, emergency family care, and the list goes on. The goals of these programs are to reduce costs to employers, improve employee productivity and ultimately top and bottom line financial results.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American businesses lose an average of 2.8 million work days each year due to unplanned absences, which costs employers more than $74 million. Some thought circles put this number close to $200 million. Regardless, the numbers are staggering, and with our aging population and increasing life expectancy these numbers will continue to escalate.


The figures above deal with workplace absenteeism ONLY, and not workplace presenteeism. What’s the difference? We’ve defined absenteeism to be the employee being absent from work due to health reasons. According to Dr. Gary Cooper, who pioneered the term “presenteeism” in the mid-90’s, this is where employees show up for work even if they are too sick, stressed, or distracted to be productive.

There is an underlying medical issue that is causing the employee to be unproductive at work.  They’re physically there but not really THERE!  The result?  Poor productivity and performance, which often negatively influences colleagues and peers.

The above definition of presenteeism originally coined by Dr. Cooper focuses on health being the reason for non-performance and productivity at work. There are many reasons why presenteeism exists, and through my experience and research, I would argue that our mental states are the key drivers of presenteeism. Corporations have spent so much time, money and resources reducing absenteeism that it has created a culture of fear and anxiety towards being absent from work. Businesses have even gone as far as rewarding employees for not taking sick days, or using sick-related benefits. This has pushed us to behave and act in ways that are in fact more detrimental to our own physical health, and personal productivity and performance.  At the end of the day, we are scared to death of not satisfying the “butt in chair” optic.

The Canadian Mental Health Association of Ontario provides a more precise and detailed description of the reasons for presenteeism, which relate to stress and sub-par psychological state of mind.

Case in Point…

With our world literally turning itself upside down every single day; natural disasters, gigantic hostile takeovers, corporate cuts, war, political upheaval, the technological explosion, WE are scared to death. We have bills to pay, mouths to feed and simply staying alive and covering basic survival needs has never been more at the forefront of everything we do and think about. Decisions are made so quickly, and through our natural “fight or flight” human responses, our actions are dictated by our emotions. Simply put, we’re afraid of being pushed aside or marginalized in the workplace.

Let’s Add a Twist…

We’ve been talking about presenteeism defined as being at work when sick or unhealthy. I am jumping out on a limb here and am going to argue that presenteeism is also about being at work when you ARE perfectly healthy but spending time doing other things completely unrelated to helping your company achieve and succeed on its business objectives.  What about people that are physically there but simply wasting time by choice?

This Doesn’t Make Any Sense…

My explanation… we are unbelievably connected socially through technological means with anyone, anywhere, and at anytime.  We are a culture of “checking in” (e.g. FourSquare, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email, blog and the list goes on). When using a laptop we typically have multiple screens open at once, flipping back and forth constantly from Hootsuite to email to LinkedIn to Facebook to blogs. Our iPod’s are raging 24-7, mobile phones buzzing constantly from incoming texts, emails, tweets or phone calls, and this is all happening at 10,000 miles an hour. Our attention spans are probably 10,000% shorter than they were just 10 years ago and our concentration levels are limited to the 10 seconds of complete silence we actually get in a given day. Our social connections, technological “connectedness” and instant and constant real-time communication habits result in our available time that should be spent on work is being eaten up doing other things and being unproductive.

The Point? Perfectly healthy people are wasting incredible amounts of time at work, as are unhealthy people. This is ALL presenteeism to me!

What Are the Costs?

I made the argument that technological waste needs to be part of the definition of presenteeism. Research does exist to show that presenteeism is significantly greater than absenteeism but currently I would consider the research a bit sketchy because a) it only deals with presenteeism that is related to medical issues, and b) the statistics are all over the place. Research has been done, primarily in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia.

The Journal of Occupation and Environmental Medicine argues that “presenteeism costs employers as much as 3 times the dollar amount as absenteeism in terms of lost productivity”.

Statistics Canadaargues that “productivity lost from presenteeism was 7.5 times greater than productivity loss from absenteeism”. They also argue that “stress related health problems could increase the ratio to 15 times greater”.

Canadian Occupational Safety provides a good perspective on the problem of presenteeism and argues that it is 4 times bigger than absenteeism in terms of hours lost. The COS also includes research completed from Watson Wyatt Canada that puts the ratio of presenteeism to absenteeism between 2.5 and 8.6 times, with the top 3 medical causes of presenteeism being depression, fatigue and insomnia.

Another Wrinkle in the Cost Argument…

If you have heard me speak in the past or follow my blog, you have likely heard me talk confidently about the positive correlation that exists between employee engagement and business results. The more engaged your workforce is the more successful you will be in achieving your corporate strategic objectives. In terms of a definition for employee engagement there are many, but I have typically used something close to the following:

“An intimate emotional connection that an employee feels for the company they work for that propels them to exert greater discretionary effort in their work”.

Now throw in what I have talked about regarding presenteeism into the mix. Do you think perfectly healthy employees that are physically at work but choosing to do other things is an example of strong engagement? I didn’t think so. Earlier I threw around a bunch of figures for what presenteeism costs business today, and nowhere in this research do these numbers reflect what employee disengagement caused by presenteeism costs. I am NOT going to try and take a stab at what this number may be but the point here is it would be profoundly staggering and it’s a huge problem.


Pis a much more costly problem than absenteeism, yet corporations focus mostly on reducing absenteeism. I also argue that the current definition of presenteeism only relates to medical reasons, but should include lost productivity and performance as a result of perfectly healthy employees doing things completely unrelated to the business.

These other things are directly related to technology and our “check in everything now and now” mentalities. I also argue that presenteeism is a significant drain on employee engagement, which strongly correlates to business results.  Finally, presenteeism is a huge problem, and by taking on a more accurate understanding of what presenteeism is, the problem is epidemic-like and should be the focus of organizational improvements today.