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01 September 2014

Managing Absence in the Workplace

Posted By: AIB Business

Small businesses in Ireland lose over €563 million per annum through absenteeism, writes Aviné McNally from the Small Firms Association. But what can be done to address the problem?

Absenteeism is defined as all absence from work other than annual leave, public holidays, maternity leave, jury duty and days lost to strikes and lay offs. It includes days lost due to illness, long term absence, exam and study leave, compassionate leave, married/civil partnership leave and parental leave.



Addressing the Problem

The first step in addressing absenteeism in the workplace is to know if there is a problem and to have an absence policy in place. This policy should be circulated to all staff and clearly outline the process for notification and certification, and it should leave employees in no doubt as to what is acceptable in the workplace. This allows management to be consistent and treat all employees in a fair and equal manner.

Maintenance and monitoring of attendance records is essential for management to gauge unacceptable levels of absenteeism.  These attendance records should be comprehensive and contain detailed information including patterns, types and times of absence. 


Calculating Absenteeism Rates

The national average absenteeism rate is eight days. However, in small firms the average is five days. In order to calculate absenteeism, the following calculation can be used: 

Number of days of absence in period under review ÷ Total number of possible workdays in period under review X 100

(Workdays include the number of days in a year minus Saturdays and Sundays unless part of the working week, public and company holidays.) 


Dealing with the problem

Management will often deal with absenteeism within a company’s disciplinary policy. Absenteeism dismissals form a substantial portion of the claims brought before the Employment Appeals Tribunal, and each case is decided on its merits.  

In general, dismissals due to absenteeism usually fall into two main areas - Incapacity and Conduct.



An employer has a right to expect regular and reasonable levels of attendance from an employee. Where an employee is unable to attend regularly, or at a level the employer feels is reasonable, the employee’s contract of employment may be terminated due to the employee’s incapacity to fulfil their employment contract.

In cases of incapacity, the employer must be extremely careful to treat each case on an individual basis and to consider all circumstances.  

Short Term Absence – Intermittent short-term absence is usually the most problematic and can often involve a “mixed bag” of complaints. Such absences tend to cause more disruption than long term absenteeism where an employer will usually make alternative employee arrangements. 

For short term absences, following the company’s standard disciplinary procedure is appropriate. However, with this type of absenteeism, the employer will have to prove that a pattern exists, that the level of absenteeism is above the norm, that the absence is causing problems and that all reasonable steps – counselling, warnings and opportunities to improve – have been taken.

Long Term Absence – When an employee has been absent over a long period of time, the employer’s main concern will be whether or not the employee will be in a position to return to work and, when they do, will they be able to attend regularly. If it is established that it is unlikely the employee will be able to return to work, the employer will then be in a position to make a decision on the continued employment of the individual.

The decision to terminate employment in a long-term absenteeism case will normally be based on a medical report/s, on the employee’s condition and future prognosis with a “return to work date”.  

During a case of prolonged absence due to illness, it is essential to maintain written contact with the employee throughout the time. It should be noted that case rulings would normally expect a period of 12-18 months to have elapsed prior to dismissing an employee on long term absence. 



In regard to absenteeism, management must:

  • Be notified of the absence immediately.
  • Be kept informed by the employee.  
  • Management can request employees to supply information regarding their absence/illness. This usually takes the form of a medical or hospital certificate.
  • Adhere to the absenteeism/sick pay procedures.
    Employers should apply these requirements consistently and with full regard to fair procedures.  

Bona Fide illness 
As a general rule, an employee who is absent on sick leave is unfit for work and should not engage in other working activities, which would conflict with their absence on sick leave. Where an employee does engage in such activity, s/he may be liable to dismissal. Once again, caution must be exercised i.e. can the company reasonably establish that the employee was engaged in other activities? Your word against the employee’s word would not be sufficient. If an employee, following disciplinary procedures, is guilty of misconduct then the employer is entitled to dismiss the employee.

Provision of Alternative Employment

An issue that often arises is whether the employer has an obligation to provide alternative “light” work to an employee who is no longer capable of performing the job they were originally employed to do. The general rule is that there is no legal obligation on the employer to provide alternative light work. However, regard should be given to the duration of time the employee will require this form of work for and also the consequences of providing light work on a temporary basis vis-à-vis flexibility, availability and company performance.

Probably the most efficient way of preventing absenteeism is to encourage attendance.  This requires looking at the environment in which people work, the way in which their work is organised, job satisfaction, working relationships, company morale and levels of opportunities, training and promotion.  


Written by: Aviné McNally, Assistant Director, Small Firms Association

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