What is employee absence?

Lodewijk Noordzij

Every organisation has to contend with illness, to a greater or lesser degree. Occasionally every person, and so also every employee, is unable to come to work. This could be because of ‘flu, a migraine or short-term injury. In this instance, we refer to permissible absence. It is also apparent that employees are not always absent for legitimate reasons. In this case we refer to impermissible absence.


1 the state of being away
2 the time during which a person or thing is away

Permissible absence

People who are genuinely ill and as a result cannot work have little control over their absence. Their physical condition means they are not in a position to come to work. In this case we refer to permissible absence. Permissible absence is something an organisation has only a limited amount of influence over (see also the chapter on Vitality).

Impermissible absence

There are also employees who call in sick because they do not feel like working. This could be because of too much pressure or because of personal conflicts at work. In this case, we refer to impermissible absence. Impermissible absence is characterised by short duration and high frequency.In contrast to permissible absence, impermissible absence does lie within the organisation’s sphere of influence. Employees who are impermissibly absent often lack the means (for example social support, autonomy, involvement in decision making etc2) to solve their problems. Absence is then – in their eyes – the only option left.

Employees who are impermissibly absent are often dissatisfied about their work or the atmosphere in the organisation. An employee who frequently argues with direct colleagues will no longer enjoy going to work. This employee is not motivated to work. He will not feel as if he fits into the organisation and as a result will be less committed. By making absence management part of the organisation’s policy, an organisation can better defend itself against the problem.


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The importance of absence management

Absence is a real problem for many organisations.3 The costs of absence are increasingly being borne by the employer. In addition, it has an impact on how your organisation functions as a whole. Deadlines cannot be met, efficiency declines and customer service worsens. Absence means that nothing is being produced for the salary paid out. This leads to losses or additional costs because someone else has to be taken on to cover the job.

That is why it is important for your organisation to manage absence. Even though absence has high costs and negative effects for organisations, it is generally badly managed. Organisations usually have great difficulty dealing with it effectively. It is hard to gain an accurate insight into the impact absence has on your organisation, which means your organisation acts reactively more often than proactively. However, it is important to make absence management an integral part of your organisation’s policy.4

  1. Driver, R.W. and Watson, C.J. (1989), Construct Validity of Voluntary and Involuntary Absenteeism, Journal of Business and Psychology, 4, 109-118
  2. Schaufeli, W.B. and Bakker, A.B. (2004), Job Demands, Job Resources and their Relationship with Burnout and Engagement: a Multi Sample Study, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 25, 293-315
  3. Ones, D.S. et al (2003), Personality and Absenteeism: A Meta-Analysis of Integrity Tests, European Journal of Personality, 17, 19-38 
  4. Tey, C. (2005), Absenteeism: problem or symptom?, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 11, 13-17  

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