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Difficult Employee Series – The Absentee

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Sometimes, the basics can be the most difficult – at least for some. Turning up to work each day can be a difficult task for many people, and there comes a point when regular absenteeism becomes a real problem. Deadlines have to be met, tasks completed and targets met, but, more than anything else, the absentee can cause disruption and a lack of motivation to pervade the rest of the workplace. This article will examine the key signs that an employee can be considered an absentee, what underlying factors might be at play and what business-owners can do to remedy the situation.

What is an absentee?

‘Absenteeism’ refers to simple non-attendance; the act of being absent from work. An absentee is, therefore, in essence someone who just doesn’t show up. However, in reality it can be much more complicated than that. Often, the absenteeism is tied to ‘presenteeism’, which means that they will turn up to work but consistently underperform. The causes for both are various, but their impact is resoundingly negative.

What is the cost of absenteeism?

A report back in 2017 by FirstCare revealed that workplace absence cost the UK economy an enormous £18 billion in lost productivity that year, with it predicted to reach £21 billion by 20201. Unfortunately, they were right: at the height of the pandemic, £20.6 billion was lost due to workplace absence, although of course much of that will be down to sickness2.

That said, workplace absence has increased year-on-year since 2011, hinting at a larger trend that goes beyond COVID-19. Prior to the outbreak of Coronavirus, Moorepay found that absenteeism costs the private sector an average of £568 per employee per year3, a staggering figure considering the size of the UK’s private workforce at some 32.93 million4.

What are the causes of absenteeism?

There are many different causes for an absentee employee, and, as an employer, it’s crucial to not dismiss an employee without first assessing all of the facts in their totality. Simple laziness may be the cause, but certainly not always. As such, it’s important to approach your absentee with an open mind. Some of the underlying reasons may encompass any, all, or a combination of the following:

Personal Health Problems

In many cases, there can be a lot more going on that what appears on the surface. Health problems are the one thing that most, if not all, of us will struggle with at some point in our lives. The extent to which the person is willing to discuss their condition will be down to their individual circumstances and personality.

For instance, someone with mental health difficulties such as depression or anxiety may feel uncomfortable talking about them, yet their condition will nonetheless have an impact on their ability to function effectively, attend work on time and fulfill their role. Under the Equality Act of 2010, disability is a protected characteristic than should not be discriminated against, but instead understood and accommodated for. In regards to mental health, it’s possible that the individual in question does not even consider themselves disabled – it’s a sensitive issue which should be treated as such.

Personal Circumstances

It’s difficult to know exactly what people are going through at any given moment. Messy break-ups, family tragedies, issues at home: man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward5. Each of these problems, as well as a whole host more, could be a reason for absenteeism or lateness. In some cases, it can even be as simple a matter as a scheduling clash – perhaps an employee has to drive their children to school before attending work, and this causes continual lateness.

Drug and Alcohol Problems

Addiction to or abuse of drink and drugs will doubtlessly have an impact upon an employee’s ability to function effectively, let alone attend consistently. Watch out for signs that an employee is under the influence at work at all times. These will vary upon the particular substance, but a watchful eye is always recommended.

Lack of Sleep

This factor can tie in to all others, but a simple lack of sleep can have an extremely harmful effect on someone’s life. It can be down to personal circumstances, such as having a small child that wakes during the night, or it may be due to substance abuse problems or health, but in all cases, it should be taken into account that the employee may not wish to be absent, but is simply physically unable to function.

What can employers do to reduce absenteeism?

When dealing with an employee that is often absent, it is always worthwhile to discuss openly with them their personal situation before jumping to conclusions.  The above factors must be considered before any disciplinary action taken, as one may well fall foul of current employment legislation if one takes action too hastily.

Instead, aim to create a welcoming environment in which employees feel free to discuss their circumstances without fear of repercussions. It may be possible that minor reasonable adjustments (such as revised hours) may be all that it takes. Failing that, if all of the above options have been exhausted, then the next route may be a disciplinary one.

If you are unsure about what to do, then why not get in touch with the dedicated HR professionals at HR:4UK on [email protected] or call 01455 444 222 for expert, impartial advice.


1. FirstCare. (2018). Change at Work: How Absence, Attitudes and Demographics are impacting UK Employers. https://www.astutis.com/astutis-hub/news/workplace-absence-costs-uk-economy

2. Novuna. (24th October 2022). Sickness Absence Rate in the UK Highest Since 2010.https://www.novuna.co.uk/news-and-insights/business-cash-flow/sickness-absence-rate-in-the-uk-highest-since-2010/

3. Moorepay. (2020). The Cost of Employee Absence. https://www.moorepay.co.uk/resource/cost-employee-absence/

4. Statista. (2023). Number and percentage of private sector employees in the United Kingdom from 1st quarter 1999 to 1st quarter 2023. https://www.statista.com/statistics/676734/private-sector-workforce-uk/

5. King James Bible. Book of Job 5:7. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Job%205%3A7&version=KJV

James Dawson

James is our resident wordsmith and has many years of experience in writing about a huge variety of topics from HR to Occupational Health and beyond. He has been published in numerous magazines and news outlets, and especially enjoys researching and analysing the current trends in the modern business world.