Accueil » 36-4 ( 1981) » L’absentéisme : importance, nature et remèdes

L’absentéisme : importance, nature et remèdes

Roland Thérault, Pierre B. Lesage et Maurice Boisvert


Après avoir traité de l'importance et de retendue du phénomène d'absentéisme au sein des entreprises ainsi que des coûts impliqués, les auteurs identifient les principaux modèles explicatifs ainsi que les limites inhérentes à ces divers modèles en vue d'en présenter un schéma intégrateur. Ensuite, ils identifient les diverses stratégies d'intervention à la portée de la direction des entreprises utilisées en pratique afin d'enrayer, tout au moins en partie, l'absentéisme et ses effets au sein des entreprises.


Absenteeism : Problems and Remedies

In this article, we will deal with absenteeism from three different yet complementary perspectives. First of all, the importance and the prevalence of absenteeism in the workplace will be discussed, with special attention to the question of its attendant costs. Next, we will present a brief synopsis of the models which figure most prominently in the explanation of absenteeism. Care will be taken to identify some of the main limitations of each model, with a view toward developing an integrated and more appropriate explanatory framework. Finally, drawing upon this explanatory framework, we will briefly outline several of the strategies available to management for the purpose of reducing absenteeism and minimizing its adverse effects on work organizations.

Extent of the Problem and its Related Costs

A conservative estimate of the incidence of absenteeism would be that on any . given day, an average of 3.5 to 4% of Canadian workers do not show up for work (frequency of absenteeism is about 2.6 times per year per worker for a yearly average of 8 to 9 days per employee). Further, in terms of the distribution of absenteeism, 25% of all employees seldom skip work (say, one day per year), whereas 15% of workers are responsible for 40% of the absences.

The importance of this particular finding is especially evident when we consider the costs of absenteeism to the work organization. For example, let us assume that this relatively conservative estimate of 9 days per employee per year is a reasonable one. Let us further assume an average salary of $50 per diem as well as a cost to the organization of 1.75 times the salary of the absent employee. Thus, for an organization employing 5,000 workers, the annual cost of absenteeism would be as follows:

9 x $50 x 1.75 x 5,000 = $3,937,500 (or $878.50 per employee).

Causes and Correlates of Absenteeism

A thorough review of the literature strongly suggests that the causes and correlates are so diverse as to argue against the search for a single remedy for absenteeism, one which could be optimally effective in combatting all causes pertinent to a given situation. Instead, we are persuaded that the effective control of absenteeism can come only from an in-depth analysis of the problem on a case-by-case basis; i.e., one may reasonably suppose that absenteeism among white-collar clerical employees and blue-collar production workers in a given company may represent behavioral symptoms whose underlying causes are different and whose solutions are necessarily different also. In other words, in the treatment of absenteeism it appears doubtful that there exists a universally applicable solution or one which is capable of eliminating absenteeism altogether.

Despite the diversity of causes and correlates cited, it is nonetheless possible to integrate these variables by focusing on the underlying process leading to absenteeism. In this context, presence at work or absenteeism may be viewed as the result of the following process: First, the individual has to think that if he wants to, he can show up for work; second, the individual has to think further that the consequences of being present at work are more favorable to him than the consequences of being absent; third, he has to be effectively able to get to work and, finally, the effects of the organizational policies and procedures have to be perceived as more compelling to be present than to be absent.

Intervention Strategies and their Effects

Strategies for reducing absenteeism may be classified as either ''participative" or "hierarchical".

Strategies termed "participative" are commonly based on a conception of human behaviour akin to the principles of Douglas Me Gregor's Theory Y, which assumes that employees are by nature highly motivated, diligent, autonomous, and so forth. For proponents of "participative" solutions, then countering absenteeism becomes essentially a matter of providing the circumstances necessary to the realization of the employee's full potential. Concrete examples of such strategies would include building semi-autonomous work teams, establishing flexible work schedules, adjusting levels of remuneration according to the technicality of the job or the efficiency of the employee, and so forth.

In contrast, strategies labelled "hierarchical" emphasize the resumption by management of control over the attendance behaviour and the output of employees. As has typically been the case, management seeks to exert control by calling upon an array of incentives and disincentives designed to increase the attractiveness of staying on the job and/or to increase the costs of absenteeism to the employee. Unlike theparticipative approach, which encourages worker involvement in the solution to the problem, hierarchical strategies imply that the initiatives, the incentives, and the control over problem-solving processes originate with management. (In most cases, the "nerve center" in the control System is the immediate supervisor, who is called upon to communicate policies, arrange and preside over meetings, apply sanctions, ...).

One might well wonder whether one type of strategy has been shown to be consistently superior to the other. However, at the present time, the state of empirical evidence on the question simply does not permit us to state anunequivocal preference for either participative or hierarchical strategies. Nevertheless, our comprehensive review of theory and research on all facets of absenteeism, its diagnosis and treatment, prompts us to offer the following tentative conclusions.

First of all, we estimate that the use of an intervention strategy of the "hierarchical" variety, which leads to a decrease of, say, 20% in the absenteeism rate, should result in a savings of $162 per employee per year.

In contrast, the resort to a "participative" intervention would bring about an estimated savings of only $79 per employee per year, and this only if the intervention succeeded in improving by 40% the quality of working life (as perceived by the employees). What is more, the costs involved in a participative type of problem-solving orientation are doubtless higher than for a hierarchical solution. All the same, we must not forget that an organization could well have valid reasons for wanting to improve the quality of working lifeother than a desire to reduce absenteeism. However, one of the built-in problems of the whole approach is that it mistakenly attributed absenteeism toall employees and proposes that all such problems be treated at the same time and in the say way, as if there existed a single cause and a single, universally applicable remedy.

Our final conclusion, then, is that future research and intervention efforts should be more sharply focused than has been the case up to now. At the very least, this change in orientation would imply (1) identifying those individuals (or categories of individuals) most prone to absences, and (2) involving chronically absent employees, their supervisors, and union representatives in the analysis of causes and the exploration of avenues of solution.