The Cost of Unplanned Absences

Positive absence management is when organisations proactively seek to facilitate the quick and sustainable return of employees to work. According to the DHS Survey Australia’s absence rates are 50 per cent higher than in the UK and have risen to an average of 8.9 days per employee per annum, slightly up on 8.7 days in 2012.

Results of the 2013 Absence Management survey are based on the answers provided by 108 organisations across Australia who collectively employ more than 450 000 employees. Respondents completed the survey between February and March 2013 and were requested to provide their absence data from January 2012- December 2012.

The survey showed that absence levels are highest in the telecommunications and utilities sector at an average of 11.5 days per employee per year. Contact centres had the second highest rate at 10.9 days per year.

On a state-by-state basis Queensland and South Australian had the highest levels of absence, showing rates 24 per cent higher than the national average. In fact the survey showed that on any given day in Queensland some five percent of the workforce are on an unplanned absence from work.

Interestingly, larger businesses experience higher levels of absenteeism and organisations with 1000 or more employees had an average of 10.5 days per employee per year.


The survey also showed that organisations with an entitlement mentality experience higher levels of absenteeism and one in two organisations believed there was an entitlement mentality in their workplace.

This helps build a culture in which a certain degree of absenteeism is accepted as normal. In organisations with entrenched absence cultures it is routine for managers and employees to take sickies when there is little or no justification for doing so.

The survey also revealed a strong relationship between staff turnover and absenteeism rates with organisations with turnover rates at 25+ per cent experiencing around 9.9 days of unplanned absences per employee per year and those with turnover rates down at zero-five per cent only having to manage 7 days per employee per year.

The Cost of Absence

Using ABS statistics DHS estimates that 88,052,595 work days are lost per annum in Australia at an average cost of $308 per day. 71 per cent of organisations view absenteeism as a significant burden for the business to bear yet only 29 per cent or organisations actively measure the cost of unplanned absences. DHS say that measuring the cost of absenteeism would enable organisations to implement more effective strategies for dealing with the issue.

Causes of Absence

Short-term illnesses such as cold/flu, headaches and gastro and home and family responsibilities are the main causes of absenteeism accounting for some 70 per cent of lost days. Interestingly more than 50 per cent of respondents consider one-day absences to be more problematic to manage then long-term absences.

Most Effective Methods for Managing Absence

The DHS survey asked respondents to indicate which practices they used for managing absences and which three practices were the most effective in their organisation. The top three practices used and considered most effective were:

  • Return to work interviews, which are used by over 65 per cent of respondents, and considered the most effective approach.
  • Training managers in absence management, which is used by 55 per cent of organisations, and found by 62 per cent of organisations to be the most effective approach.
  • Outsourcing absence recording to specialist centralised contact centre providers which is used by more than one-third of respondents, and considered by 51 per cent of respondents to be the most effective approach.

Interestingly, the DHS survey shows that both employee assistance programs and health promotion activities are considered least effective. This may be due to the character of problematic absence, which is frequent, short- term episodes of one-two days, and that these approaches are more focused on longer term lifestyle or more complex mental health factors.

For more information and to read the Absence Management and Wellbeing Survey 2013 in full visit the DHS website.



1. DHS Absence Management and Wellbeing Survey 2013



 This Better Workplace Bulletin was First Published in March 2014