If You Read One Article About Absenteeism at Work Read This One

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Whenever an employee working for you is away from work due to illness, it’s often causing some degree of frustration.  Because unexpected absences, can be detrimental to the productivity and efficiency of your operations. Furthermore, there are direct costs associated with paid sick leave or other benefits. And there is also the cost of other employees working overtime to complete the work not being done by the absent employee. As an employer, you probably understand that some degree of absenteeism is to be tolerated as a cost of doing business. But you are also entitled to expect regular ongoing attendance from your employees.

When Missing Work Becomes Problematic

A recent study from Morneau Shepell found that slightly more than 52% of incidental absence is not due to illness. So work-related factors were found to play a big role in predicting whether the type of absence is related to illness or non-illness reasons.

Employees start calling in sick when work pressure goes up, or their working relationships with their boss deteriorates, or they their job satisfaction decreases.

Excessive absenteeism occurs whenever an employee regularly calls in “sick” but is unable to substantiate the illness with satisfactory medical documentation. And such employees will frequently undermine employer attempts to confirm any illness by arguing that they were unable to see a doctor on short notice or that they were too ill to leave the house.

Managing Absenteeism

In order to determine whether there is an absenteeism problem, as an employer you may consider doing the following:

  • Identify the total number of days off and number of separate instances of absenteeism for each employee within the last one month, three months and 12 months; and
  • Identify the worst 10% (or other % below which there is a significant gap) in each monitoring time period (because some employees will be in the worst 10% in one period but not in others); and
  • Consider the reasons for absence: maternity leave, personal emergency leave, child care leave, etc. These absences do not require any corrective actions. Even if the employee is in the worth 10%; and
  • Consider whether there is a pattern of absences (Fridays, long weekends, etc.); and
  • Deal with the worst cases first

By managing absenteeism that way, your approach will be much more quantifiable and therefore objective. So you want to have these statistics in order to track absenteeism and have a consistent approach.  

Culpable versus Non-Culpable Absences

Excessive absenteeism described above is usually the result of employees’ desire to miss work due to reasons unrelated to illness. So the casual absences not supported by doctor’s notes may be considered culpable. Culpable absences are things within the control of the employee and that could be avoided. Such as: absences due to car problems, traffic or sleeping in, leaving work without permission or failing to notify you, the employer, of an absence. Culpable absences are those considered unreasonable such as those absences consistently occurring after a long weekend.

Counseling versus Discipline

Although culpable absenteeism should be addressed in the same manner as other disciplinary conduct, a recent case law  clearly distinguished the differences in responses to culpable versus non-culpable absenteeism by focusing on the distinction between counselling and discipline. The case law stipulates the following:  it appears that a counselling letter advising an employee of the concerns of the employer regarding excessive absenteeism and indicating that a failure to improve that record may result in discharge is not, in and of itself, disciplinary in nature. Indeed, it is regarded as a necessary prerequisite to the subsequent exercise of the right to terminate for innocent absenteeism where that is found to be necessary.

So, at the end of the day, an Attendance Management Program must not be discriminatory. As an employer, you must consistently enforce the policy.

Your policy must establish a threshold of absences at which you can begin to counsel your employees about their attendance. It must be flexible in order to allow you to consider unique circumstances to each employee. Where expectations are clearly set out, and the policy is consistently and fairly applied, attendance management policies are a useful way to curb excessive non-culpable absenteeism.


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