Absence Rate

Colleen Frislid
Colleen E. Frislid, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Do you need more insight into the health of your organization? How do you know if you have a high number of employee absences, and how should you manage it if you do? Read on to learn more about absence rates.

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What Is an Absence Rate?

An absence rate, or absenteeism rate, measures unplanned absences in your organization. Absence rate can be calculated on an organizational level, for a group, or for an individual, giving you a lot of flexibility for how you use the information.

Unplanned absences include time off due to illness, injury, or any other reason not involving tardiness, holidays, or planned vacations. Some absenteeism is inevitable, but it’s important to recognize that this is a negative metric and should not go unchecked.

Absence Rate vs Absence Frequency

An important distinction to make when measuring absence is to understand the difference between an absence rate and a frequency rate.

The absence rate can be used to capture detailed information about an employees’ unplanned absences, while the frequency rate only captures the rate of absences in your whole organization by looking at the number of separate absences. When looking at a department’s absence rate and frequency rate, you might see that the absences are very long, which could indicate an illness that required recovery time, or that they are short and frequent. This may tell you that employees are feeling disengaged and burnout.

To calculate the absence frequency, divide the number of absences in a specific period by the number of the employees in that same period, and then multiply by 100. The absence rate calculation is outlined in more detail below.

Why Is It Important to Know Your Employees’ Absence Rate?

The absence rate can provide great insight into key areas of the business.

  • Snapshot of employee health. A high absence rate indicates that your employees are taking more days off to deal with health and wellness concerns. Knowing this allows you to put new practices or programs in place to support employee health.
  • Cultural review. Trends of high or low absence rates in certain departments, regions, or other segments of the business indicate that there are factors specific to those segments impacting your employees. For example, a higher absence rate in one department may indicate that employees are burned out or disengaged. Having that insight gives you the ability to address it head-on to improve your company’s overall culture.
  • Insight to employee needs. Investigating absences allows you to discover other factors impacting your workforce. For instance, you may find that a high percentage of employees are taking unplanned time off for child or dependent care, for example. This gives you the opportunity to review your policies to see if they are working for your specific workforce, and rewrite ones that aren’t working to increase engagement.

How to Calculate Absence Rate

Here is how you calculate the absence rate.

Step 1: Collect Data

You need two pieces of data.

  • The first is the number of workdays in the given period you are examining—often a quarter, half-year, or full year. These days don’t include holidays, weekends, or other days where the company is shut down or the employee(s) is not scheduled to work.
  • Secondly, you need the number of days of absences for the individual or group in question.

Step 2: Calculate

To calculate the absence rate, divide the number of absent days in a period by the number of workdays in that same period. The result is the absence rate. (There are websites that help you calculate the number of working days—for instance, workingdays.us or timeanddate.com.)

For example:

  • Sue was scheduled to work 249 days this year. She earned 10 days of vacation, so her total possible days of work numbered 239.
  • Sue had 12 unplanned absences.
  • 12 divided by 239 is 5.02%. Sue had an absence rate of 5%.

Step 3: Interpret

Absence rate is a negative metric, so while you should expect some, you want this number to be as low as possible.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics records average absence rates by occupation. In 2020, the total average absence rate for all full-time workers was 3.0%, with some industries as high as 4.9% and others as low as 1.7%.

You can use these numbers as a benchmark. Identify the standard absence rate for your industry and then determine what you believe is a reasonable absence rate for your organization. In conjunction with the statistics from BLS, you should be able to determine what is reasonable and what is high.

If you begin to notice trends in a certain direction, investigate them. When used in conjunction with other metrics, you can develop a full image of your company’s absenteeism and how to decrease it.

Best Practices to Lower Absence Rate

There are a number of things you can do to decrease your absence rate.

Review Policies

Review or update your internal policies on unplanned absences. Your policy should enable your employees to work as much as they reasonably can. Consider your ideal scenario and write a clear policy to help you achieve it. It should address issues when to stay home or come to work; who to call to report an illness and the preferred timeline to do so; and what your expectations are.

Review Sick Leave

In particular, review your sick leave policies. A lot of states have laws addressing this, so make sure that your absenteeism policies and your time off policies are compliant with any state and local laws.

Beyond that, you may consider additional policies, like Time Away for Doctor’s Visits to encourage preventative care and decrease the number of unplanned sick days. Alternatively, in states where it’s legal, you might write a policy that encompasses both sick and vacation time to encourage employees to take only the time they need. Each company is different, so you’ll need to consider your company’s culture and what you are trying to accomplish.

Encourage Health Care

Consider having an on-site or company doctor that your employee can use. This encourages preventative care, ensures that your employees are well taken care of, and minimizes unnecessary sick leave.

You may find it more realistic for your company to have a wellness program. You can work with your benefits carrier to provide gym memberships, host smoking cessation programs, create company-wide competitions to support healthy habits, or offer other programs to encourage wellness within your organization.

Train Managers

Training your staff and managers on how to deal with employee absences can help hold employees accountable and make sure you have the information you need to continue to monitor absences. For example, managers should know and understand the policies relating to sick time, and they should know what questions they may and may not ask when an employee requests an unplanned absence.

Employees should understand the policies relating to time off, as well as what obligations they have (such as providing a doctor’s note after three consecutive days out). There should be clear and consistent expectations for how employees request unplanned absences, and they should be applied consistently and fairly.

It may help to provide written policies and expectations to your employee base and hold manager training to cover the policies and expectations and answer questions.

Reward Good Attendance

Consider rewards for employees with good attendance. Some employees respond to positive reinforcement; an extra PTO day, being entered into a raffle for a gift card or special item, or hosting a quarterly lunch for all employees with perfect attendance are a few ways to incentivize your workforce not to call in sick unnecessarily.

Be aware of any state or local mandates around sick time, as it may protect leave and prohibit or limit what you are able to do. You can find this information on state or local labor department websites. Work with an employment attorney if you are unsure of the best way to proceed.

Be Flexible

Create flexible working arrangements, including allowing employees to work from home. For instance, allowing parents with sick children to work from home makes it easier for them to stay active and engaged in work, even on the days they aren’t able to come to work.

Consider Company Culture

If your absence rate is high, it may indicate larger problems with your company culture. Investigate those trends with urgency and strive to correct them.

For example, if you notice that the organization as a whole has around a 2% absence rate, but employees in a specific department have a 6% absence rate, consider conducting interviews or anonymous surveys to determine the root cause. You may find that there is a high percentage of parents with small kids at home, and a work-from-home policy would allow them to continue working while caring for family members.

Alternatively, you may find that the manager over that department has not been giving sufficient support to their staff and the employees are feeling burned out. You could respond with additional training for the manager, reviewing workloads, or increase ways to support employees’ well-being with strategies for managing burnout, company-sponsored lunches, or recognition programs.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Absence Rate

What is a high absence rate?
Absence rates vary by industry. For instance, healthcare and foodservice have higher absence rates than other industries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the total average absence rate for all full-time workers in 2020 was 3.0%, with some industries as high as 4.9% and some as low as 1.7%.
How does a high absence rate affect a company?
High absence rates lead to decreased productivity as other employees attempt to pick up additional work, leading to more burnout and absences or lower productivity for the company overall. Unhealthy employees can also drive up the cost of benefits.
Colleen Frislid
Colleen E. Frislid, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Colleen manages a team of HR consultants that work with a variety of industries, specializing in the fields of human resources, strategic planning, and human capital management. Colleen applies expert knowledge, industry experience, and relentless energy to solving companies’ issues. She is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management as well as women in leadership groups. She is PHR, SPHR, and SHRM-SCP certified. She has an awesome pet cat, Attila and, when she’s not working she loves to travel, enjoy the great outdoors, and volunteer with different local charities.

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