Absenteeism at work, caused by sickness, is a common problem and can lead to loss of productivity and a lowering of morale if employees know some of their fellow workers are “taking a sickie” when in fact they are not ill.

If a company wishes to address underlying issues and reasons for absenteeism - and provide support where possible - it will require an overall view of the state of its workforce and working environment, along with proof of patterns of absence.

The co-operation and support of the workforce as a whole - which will typically want to understand what the company wants to achieve, and why - will play an important role.

Legitimate reasons for absence

Legitimate reasons for absence include genuine sickness; recovery from injury or an operation; annual leave; compassionate, maternity or paternity leave; mentoring or training; jury service; and TOIL, or taking time off in lieu of overtime pay. TOIL is more common among higher earners who may prefer time off over the extra money.

Complicated absence situations

An example of complicated absence is an employee who has a sick child at home or a partner who is adhering to a medical treatment plan. Either may require the employee’s presence at home. The employee may find difficulty in formally asking for time off, or does not qualify for it so might establish a pattern of “sickness” to support this aspect of their life.


Some people eschew absenteeism for sickness and turn up for work when ill. The name given for this behaviour is presenteeism. It produces its own challenges.

Presenteeism is in some respects the polar opposite of absenteeism. However, there is another side to it: employees appear to be ill yet turn up for work, whereas in reality they are planning on taking a “sickie” and using presenteeism as a ruse to support their case when absent through their “illness”.

Genuine presenteeism is, however, a real phenomenon and will be used for a variety of reasons; for example the need to earn money, a need to feel wanted and/or part of a team, the satisfying of a craving to work [as found in workaholics and those who just like to work, even if “only” for the company of their colleagues], a strong feeling of not wanting to let the employer or line manager down, and hoping that dedication to their work or employer will improve pay or promotion prospects. Trying to raise their self esteem might also play a role.

Another factor in presenteeism, particularly seen in aspirational and conscientious individuals, is a desire to complete a project on time and to budget, especially if the odds are stacked against that outcome.

An employer should take due care over employees who practice presenteeism, so as not to be seen to be taking advantage of their willingness to work, and to balance their effort - and pay, if circumstances demand it - with their productivity.

What else can the employer do?

The employer could plan and implement a wellbeing strategy that addresses absenteeism and presenteeism. The backbone of it could be an online absent management tool that gathers relevant data over a period of time [months/years] and analyse it in real time to give up-to-the minute snapshots of what is going on. Some tools link absenteeism and presenteeism to individuals’ productivity, to give the most in-depth look possible at patterns of behaviour, and use that to support a well being [or minimising absence] strategy.

The strategy should include health aspects as well as advancement opportunities and managerial and physical workplace considerations.

Although unplanned absenteeism, including absence through sickness, is a drain on colleagues, teams and the employer organisation, it may not be fully noticed and sufficiently acted on. The larger the SME, the more that is likely. The long term impact of non-action by the employer is reduced productivity and a sapping of morale among staff.

By Simon Barnes, Managing Director, Dinamiks Ltd