Introduction

The employee absence rate is an important metric for business leaders and HR professionals to understand. It helps shape your absence management policy to reduce instances of unplanned leave, increase organizational productivity, minimize the cost of absences, and support your employees’ general well-being. 

What is the absence rate? 

The absence rate—also called absenteeism rate or absence percentage—is the percentage of unplanned absences in an organization over a certain number of working days. You can calculate the absence rate of an individual, a specific team, or across the organization as a whole. 

What is absence?

Absence is the time an employee is away from work due to unplanned events such as illnesses, injury, mental health problems, or carer responsibilities. This concept measures spontaneous absences rather than planned leave such as vacation or maternity leave. 

 

Absence encompasses employees missing whole workdays, as well as turning up late for work or leaving a shift early. 

 

Some causes of absences that could be troubling in the workplace include:

  • Illness 
  • Burnout
  • Workplace bullying or harassment
  • Toxic work culture
  • Workplace stress
  • Disengagement

 

Note that there will always be some level of absence in every organization for legitimate, unavoidable reasons, so expecting zero absences is an unrealistic goal. 

Why is understanding workplace absence rates important?

Your organization and its management need to understand absence rates due to the negative impact absences have on productivity, including direct and indirect costs.

 

Absences can result in direct costs to your organization due to the potential of double wages paid to the absent employee and the replacement employee.

 

There is also the indirect cost of managing these absences. As absences are generally unplanned, they’re more difficult for your organization to prepare for and for your managers to handle, disrupting other tasks. So even short-term absences can have an adverse impact. 

 

They can also be disruptive to productivity and lead to a build-up of resentment among employees who have to cover work for absent employees. Studies have shown that replacement workers are also 36.6% less productive than the absent employee they replaced. 

 

These overall costs quickly add up–absences relating to injury and illness alone cost US employers $225.8 billion a year. 

 

Measuring employee absences by calculating the absence rate helps you to identify trends and patterns in absences and develop absence-management policies and procedures in response. With this information, you can prepare as much as possible for absences and minimize the disruption they cause. 

 

If you understand your organization’s absence rate, you’ll also better understand employees’ needs and empower your management to support your teams. Armed with this information, you can identify employee health and wellness concerns and develop programs to support them. For example, if you find that unexpected caregiving leave is a recurring issue for many employees, you can develop policies to support workers who are caregivers, such as parents and those with elderly or disabled family members.

How do you calculate an absence rate?

The calculation for an absence rate is the number of absent days divided by the number of available workdays in a given period times 100.

 

Developed by the International Organization for Standardization, this formula requires you to have two pieces of information. 

 

Firstly, you’ll need to collect data on the number of absences, that is, the number of days individuals were absent and when. HRM software can track and collate this data. 

 

Secondly, you’ll need to know the number of workdays in the same period. Planned leave, weekends, official holidays, or office closures do not count towards this number. 

Example of an absence rate calculation

Let’s take a look at how to calculate the absence rate. 

 

Sophie worked full-time in the US in 2021. That year, she was absent from work for a total of 7 days. She also took 18 days of vacation leave. 

 

There were 249 workdays in the US in 2021. Subtract Sophie’s 18 days of leave, and her total workdays for the year were 231

 

Sophie’s absence rate is 7 / 231 x 1003%.

What does a high absence rate mean?

Generally speaking, 1.5% is considered an acceptable organization-wide absence rate. For context, the national absence rate in the US in 2021 was 3.2%.

 

But acceptable levels of absences vary across countries, industries, and organizations. 

For example, the absence rate for employees in manual labor jobs may be higher than that of office workers. This is because an employee engaged in physical work is less likely to be able to do their job when injured when compared to an office worker. So, when considering your organization’s absence rates and what they mean, be sure to take into account the typical absence rates for your specific industry.

 

In most cases, you should investigate absence rates above 1.5%, or above the average in your field, as they can indicate issues other than employees being physically ill. 

 

It’s also important to look at absence rates at the individual, departmental, and organizational level. Doing so allows you  to identify separate trends and develop the right response to address each of them.

 

A high individual absence rate may indicate an employee is taking leave for illegitimate reasons, such as faking sick days. While this kind of employee behavior may amount to misconduct in certain circumstances, your management should take the time try to understand why an employee might be absent too often. There may be a situation in the workplace they’re trying to avoid, such as an excessive workload, or personal factors at play, for example, childcare issues. 

 

If one of your departments has a higher absence rate than others, this could suggest there are issues unique to that team, for example, clashes with a particular management style or bullying within the department. 

 

A high absence rate at the organizational level may suggest broader underlying HR issues with your company, such as toxic workplace culture, high levels of stress and burnout, or poor policies and planning. 

Can organizational absence rates be too low?

There will always be some level of absence in an organization due to legitimate, unavoidable reasons. People catch colds, have accidents, and need to care for their sick children. That’s why absence management is about reducing the absence rate, rather than eliminating it.  

 

With this in mind, an absence rate below 1.5% can also be a cause for concern. A lower rate may suggest a culture of presenteeism, where employees force themselves to come to work when sick because they’re worried about repercussions. 

 

Presenteeism can be just as damaging to your business as a high absence rate. When employees work when they’re sick, it can worsen their condition or lead to exhaustion. This affects their productivity and also risks making other employees sick. So, in the long run, encouraging employees to take the time off that they need benefits both your company and your employees. 

How to reduce your employee absence rate

If your organization has a high absence rate, you can address this through your absence policy, procedures, and programs. Here are a few strategies.

  • Incentivizing attendance using employee perks such as a catered kitchen, gym access, or bonus paid leave days.
  • Supporting the well-being of employees, for example, providing them easy access to health information and activities to improve their well-being, such as lunchtime yoga classes.
  • Training managers to understand the organization’s absence policy and apply it effectively so they can respond to absence issues and appropriately support employees.
  • Making flexible work arrangements that allow employees to work from home on days they’re unable to come into the office, for example, when caring for a sick family member or isolating due to an infectious disease exposure.
  • Considering workplace culture and its effect on absences, paying attention to how management and employees get along, how workplace policies could be negatively affecting employees’ experiences and their desire to come to work, etc, and making changes if necessary.

 

Other absence metrics

In addition to the absence rate, you can also use the following absence metrics to help understand absences among employees.

 

  • Total number of absence days
  • Absence frequency, which measures absence pattern as opposed to the length and seriousness of absence (which is measured by the absence rate)
  • Zero absence rate, or the frequency of zero absences
  • Average absence duration in days
  • Absence cost
  • Bradford factor score, which identifies recurring short-term absences on an annual basis

 

These additional metrics can give you a fuller picture of employee absence, how it impacts your organization, and how best to manage it.

 

Conclusion

Monitoring absence rates can help organizations to understand employee absences and adjust their management policies and procedures accordingly. While there will always be some unavoidable absences within an organization, you should keep an eye on unusually high rates at the individual, departmental, and organizational level. 

 

Identifying these trends and understanding them in the context of other absence metrics can help you address the underlying causes of excessive absenteeism and reduce your company’s overall absence rates.