Education And Debate

ABC of Work Related Disorders: ABSENCE FROM WORK

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 05 October 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:874

On one level absence is easy to define and identify: it is simply non-attendance at work by an employee when attendance is expected by the employer. Despite the apparent ease of definition, absence has proved to be a complex phenomenon that resists single or straightforward explanations. The above definition is not, in fact, describing a specific behaviour but rather the non-occurrence of a specific behaviour. In this sense absence is an administrative category rather than a behaviour.

Many different circumstances and behaviours may underlie absence from work. Rather than viewing absence as a single behaviour, making careful distinctions between types of absence is vital for both understanding and managing absence.

The many types of absence include:

  • Absence attributable to sickness

  • Voluntary versus involuntary

  • Paid versus unpaid.

Distinctions can also be made between:

  • Absence events—the number of absence

  • Periods of any duration that occur—and

  • Absence duration

Evidence about absence

Even quite modest rates of absence can be costly for an organisation. Despite these costs, many organisations maintain surprisingly poor absence records, which means that obtaining good evidence about absence is often difficult. Another difficulty is that, even when organisations keep good records, establishing the types and causes of absence events is problematic.

In many cases it may be impossible to verify employees' claims about the causes of their absence. For example, it is not easy to check whether an employee really had to look after a sick relative or had a migraine or back pain. Questioning employees' claims about absence may also damage employee relations and hence be undesirable from the organisation's point of view.

Costs associated with absence from work

  • Lost production

  • Benefits paid to absentee

  • Overtime payments for replacement employees

  • Disruptions to particular sections

  • Administrative costs of managing absence and rescheduling work

Rates of absence

Although many of the available figures should be treated with caution, some patterns about rates of …

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