Absenteeism: “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

Here’s are a few startling statistics about those employees who call in sick a tad too often:

According to the Centers for Disease Control, productivity losses in the United States due to absenteeism costs employers almost $250 billion annually, and accordingly, absenteeism overall costs employers roughly $3,600 per year for each hourly worker and $2,650 each year for salaried employees.

Now that is a lot of lost productivity, and a lot of money down the drain.

But here’s the thing – people miss work for all sorts of reasons; some are legitimate and others are not. Some are a reflection on them, and frankly, some are a reflection on you.

Causes of absenteeism


  • Illness: Illness and medical appointments are the most common reason people miss work. Most medical absences have some basis in fact, but then again, who has not called into work sick for the wrong reasons?
  • Injuries: Injuries can be either immediate (a broken finger) or chronic (cancer.) Chronic injuries are a major cause of employee absenteeism.
  • Family obligations: Missing work to care for a child or parent or spouse is common.
  • Depression: Now we get into a greyer area, but no less common one. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the leading cause of absenteeism in the United States is depression. Further complicating matters is that, left untreated, depression can lead to even more absenteeism due to substance abuse.
  • Low morale: Employees miss work for many work related reasons – they don’t want to deal with an annoying co-worker or a bullying boss, they are burnt-out, their morale is low, they are unmotivated, the feel unappreciated, they are looking for another job, etc.

It is no secret that it costs businesses a lot to have employees miss work, and that is even more true when we are talking about small businesses, because we can least afford it. Not only do we feel the immediate hit of having to cover for the missing co-worker, but additional costs include paying the absent employee while he or she is at home, paying for the second worker who is doing the work, reduced productivity, morale issues for the employee(s) filling in, and administrative overhead costs.

What to do

Managing absenteeism is a three-fold process, and the first two depend on the cause of the absence.

There really is little a small business can do about someone missing work due to legitimate reasons like health and family. In fact, that is the challenge – figuring out whether the reasons are in fact genuine or not. Do you really want to be the kind of employer who requires a doctor’s note when someone misses work? No, you do not. And, given that, all you can really do is communicate what your policies are, what you expect, and what is acceptable.

The second issue has to with the other main reason people miss work: Lack of motivation, low morale, and other similar work issues. And it is here that we have to quote none other than George Costanza:

It’s not you, it’s me.

That is, when employees are missing work because they don’t like their boss, or they don’t feel challenged, or other work similar issues, the problem is you, not them. It is one of your jobs as an employer to create a climate, or as we say in business – a culture – that uplifts the team. A positive culture where they feel motivated and challenged, and where they feel supported and enjoy work is one where there will hardly be any unjustified absenteeism.

Finally, the last thing you can do to manage absenteeism is to have a good handle, administratively, on your employees’ attendance. You need to be able to track vacation time, sick days, timesheets, absences, and so on.


Let me suggest that the Attendance Calendar app from our friends at HRdirect make managing these sorts of things a breeze.

The bottom line is that absences from work are inevitable, but habitual absences are not and are a problem. The trick is to track absences and figure out whether the issue is the employee, or, well, the employer.

Steve Strauss is a senior small business columnist at USA TODAY and author of 15 books, including The Small Business Bible..

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