How to define and address excessive absenteeism at work

Some level of absenteeism is normal and even a positive thing. After all, you want employees to take time off to recharge or to stay home when they’re sick. However, some employees take things too far and veer into excessive absenteeism.

When employees start racking up excessive absences, particularly a large number of unscheduled absences, it can greatly disrupt their team’s operations and your business’ profitability. Frequently absent employees often struggle to catch up on their work and begin to encounter a broader range of performance issues.

What is considered excessive absenteeism at work?

Excessive absenteeism occurs when employees have frequent unexcused absences. Unexcused absences are typically defined as absences that have not been approved by management. For example, an employee who frequently calls out of work last minute would typically be demonstrating excessive absenteeism. Employees whose personal day and sick day call-outs continually exceed their available PTO may also be an example of excessive absenteeism, assuming that you are providing a reasonable amount of sick leave.

What is not considered excessive absenteeism at work?

It’s very important for managers to be aware of exactly what types of absences should not be counted as excessive absenteeism. You don’t want to discourage employees from using PTO or taking legally protected leave if they are following the proper protocols.

Using ADA Accommodations or FMLA Leave

Employees with health issues, disabilities, or caregiving responsibilities may have higher absenteeism rates. However, this does not count as excessive absenteeism if those absences are covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

The FMLA is an employment law that provides up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave for employees who need time off due to a serious health condition, family additions (through childbirth, adoption, or foster care), or to care for a family member with a serious health condition. This leave can be taken intermittently or as a reduced schedule. Employees calling out frequently or coming in later due to FMLA intermittent leave should not be considered excessively absent as long as they remain within their allotted leave amount and use the leave correctly for its intended purpose.

The ADA is a federal law designed to improve workplace accessibility for employees with disabilities. The ADA classifies a medical condition as a disability if it substantially limits one or more major life activities. Employers should reasonably accommodate disabled employees unless it would place an undue burden on their business. Unpaid leave, remote work options, and flexible scheduling adjustments are often classified as reasonable accommodations under the ADA. Therefore, you should make an effort to reasonably accommodate disabled employees and not count absenteeism resulting from ADA accommodations against them.

Taking occasional sick leave

Everyone gets sick. Expect employees to call out sick occasionally, especially during peak illness periods such as cold and flu season. Employees taking sick time should still follow the predetermined call-out process to alert their boss that they will miss work, but employers do need to be understanding of the fact that employees often can’t provide much notice for these absences.

Employers can generally request documentation such as a doctor’s note if an employee will be on sick leave for a prolonged period. Many employers request this if an employee will be out for more than three days. Check your state employment laws to verify and limitations in your area and consider implementing this if you believe that it could cut down absenteeism and would be practical for your employees.

Scheduled PTO

In general, scheduled absences using PTO are not considered excessive absenteeism. If employees are giving you an appropriate amount of advanced notice that they will be out, your business should be able to plan for and accommodate those absences. Vacation days, scheduled sick leave for medical appointments, and other scheduled absences are essential and help promote employee well-being.

Also, keep in mind that if you tell employees that they have unlimited PTO as part of their compensation and benefits package, you need to accept the fact that some employees will take full advantage of that offering. Feel free to decline requested time off if it cannot be accommodated based on business needs or due to coworkers having already requested the same days, but don’t ding employees for excessive absenteeism if they are following proper procedures for using PTO and getting their work done (even if they may be using this benefit more than other employees).

Miscellaneous excused absences

There are other forms of legally recognized employee leaves or instances like jury duty or voting where employers must excuse the absence or allow workers to leave for a period of time. These instances would not count towards excessive absenteeism as long as employees are properly providing notice to their manager.

Addressing excessive absenteeism in the workplace

If an employee in your organization has started exhibiting excessive, here are some steps that you can take to address the issue.

Ensure that expectations are clear

If you, as a business owner, aren’t clear on what constitutes excessive absenteeism, it’s likely that many of your employees also don’t know exactly where the line is. Having a clear employee attendance policy in your employee handbook can help clarify things for everyone.

Even if you already have a company policy in place, it may be a good idea to beef it up a bit by getting specific about how to get absences approved and excused. If you want a certain amount of notice for scheduled time off, make that clear to employees. Also ensure that they know how to properly call out for unexpected absences like emergencies or illnesses.

Identify the root cause of absenteeism

Don’t rush to immediate disciplinary action for excessive absenteeism (unless something egregious like a no-call no-show has occurred and your company has a policy of writing up or terminating employees for that offense). First, check in with the employee and try to understand what is causing an uptick in employee absences. There are many underlying personal and professional issues that can contribute to increased absenteeism, and in order to best address the issue, you’ll need to try to understand the cause.

One common cause of increased excessive employee absenteeism is burnout. If a team member who previously had a good attendance record is now having an increase in unscheduled absences and tardiness, burnout may be the culprit. The employee may also be dealing with something in their personal life, such as a relationship separation, mental health concern, or recent health diagnosis.

Of course, some employees simply are less reliable and may not have a good reason for their excessive absenteeism. However, it’s always a good idea to try to understand the contributing factors and see if there is an underlying issue that can be addressed.

Look for solutions

Once you’ve identified the root cause of the employee’s increased absenteeism, put your problem-solving hat on and look for a solution that will benefit the business and the employee. It’s best to go into the process with an open mind and a willingness to listen to and work with employees.

If an employee is feeling burnt out and frequently needs rest days, consider encouraging them to schedule regular self-care days instead of waiting until they reach the point that they are too burnt out to come to work. This will at least convert the unexcused absences into excused absences that can be planned for. Be sure to evaluate the employee’s workload to look for opportunities to reduce work stress and burnout as well.

Similarly, if childcare or transportation is a frequent issue, consider whether you can allow remote work days in place of an employee calling out to reduce absenteeism. Allowing work-from-home days can also help cut down on sick day callouts or the duration of sick leave as it can be less strenuous, and employees won’t have to worry about spreading their cold to others at the office.

One thing to keep in mind is that employees often don’t understand the leave types available to them. Sudden chronic absenteeism may be due to a serious health condition or a family member’s health decline, but the employee may not realize that their situation can qualify for FMLA leave, short-term disability, or other leave types. If an employee brought up health concerns during your check-in, work with human resources to take the appropriate steps to provide support. Employers are actually responsible for sending out an eligibility notice once they become aware of an employee’s potential need and eligibility for FMLA leave, rather than waiting for an employee to put in a request, so be proactive in exploring these solutions as well.

Provide a verbal warning

If you made a solid effort to problem-solve with the employee and find a solution to help reduce unexcused absences, but they continue to have attendance issues, it’s time for a more formal verbal warning. Set up a meeting with the employee (and a human resources team member if you’d like) to discuss the ongoing attendance problem and provide a warning that disciplinary action such as a write-up, suspension, performance improvement plan, or even termination may occur if the issue persists. Document this discussion and verbal warning in the employee’s personnel file so that you have a record of it should additional disciplinary need to be taken.

Escalate up the progressive discipline ladder

If the above measures haven’t led to adequate improvement in the employee’s attendance, it’s time for additional disciplinary action. The next step is often a formal written warning. Some employers add a probationary period or a performance improvement plan period to this to ensure that employees take the warning seriously and understand that their job will be in jeopardy if they don’t start complying with the company’s absenteeism policy.

Ensure that you provide a clear explanation of the number of days that your employee had unexcused absences, an overview of your absence policy, and what you expect from your employee going forward. Provide a copy of the written warning to the employee and have them sign an acknowledgment confirming that they’ve read it to include in their personnel file.