ABSENTEEISM — A PROBLEM K. G. DESAI* SOLVING APPROACH INTRODUCTION...
ABSENTEEISM — A PROBLEM
K. G. DESAI*
SOLVING APPROACH
INTRODUCTION
ing this problem.
Before discussing the contributory factors
Many organisations complain that ab-
to absenteeism amongst the employees, let
senteeism amongst their employees is one us be quite clear about the meaning of the
of their major problems. One often reads term absenteeism. There are many defini-
impressive articles in periodicals and jour-
tions of absenteeism. I would prefer the
nals about absenteeism. This is also a topic following definition: - When an employee
discussed at various seminars and sym-
fails to attend to work when he is expected
posia. One gets an impression that our to attend, he may be regarded as absent.
industries are genuinely suffering because In other words, when an employee stays away
of these problem and that they badly need from work and fails to inform the manage-
help in tackling this problem.
ment about his intention of staying away,
Really speaking one is not quite con-
he would be regarded as absent. When an
vinced about the seriousness of this problem employee informs the management well in
for our industrial organisations. Quite a advance about his intention of staying away
few organisations have permanent arrange-
from work the management can presumably
ments for replacing the workers who are do something about such a situation. And
absent by other workers e.g. the system of hence it is not a problem for the manage-
Badli workers which is prevalent amongst ment. But when an employee does not give
the textile mills in Bombay. There are other any prior intimation of his staying away and
organisations which allow the work to be fails to turn up for his duties, he poses a
accumulated if the employees are absent problem for the management. Therefore, the
e.g. clerical workers in government offices. above definition has an advantage in enabl-
Apparently the work which these employees ing the management to identify the problem.
are doing is not urgent or important enough. By this definition, casual leave or earned
The definition of absenteeism adopted by leave or sick leave taken by the employee
quite a few organisations is itself quite re-
without prior intimation would be regarded
vealing. These organisations regard an em-
as absence. I am stressing this implication
ployee as absent only when he exhausts all because many organisations do not regard
his permissible leave (casual leave, sick this as absence. To them the employee is
leave, etc.) and then stays away from his absent only when he has exhausted all the
work. When an employee has some leave available leave and who is staying away
to his credit he is automatically given leave without intimation. So we may adopt such
even when he stays away from work with-
a definition and use it in maintaining our
out prior information.
attendance records.
Observations such as these make one
Now the next step is to consider the
wonder whether absenteeism is a serious possible reasons as why the employees
problem at all in our organisations. How-
would remain absent. There are a number
ever, in this article we would try to discover of reasons why an employee would
ways and means of systematically combat-
remain absent. These possible rea-
is Reader in the Department of Personnel Management and Labour
Welfare, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Deonar, Bombay 400 088.

150
K. G. DESAI
sons can be considered under the following ground of some of our employees can be
three categories: i) The Socio-cultural back-
an important contributor to absenteeism.
ground of the employees, ii) The job related
factors and iii) Personal difficulties. We will
THE JOB RELATED FACTORS
elaborate them one by one.
There may be a number of reasons as
THE SOCIO-CULTURAL BACKGROUND OF THE to why an employee may not quite like his
EMPLOYEES
job. He may believe that the salary that he
is getting is quite inadequate. He may feel
Many of the employees who are now that the work that he is doing is not suffi-
residing in the cities and working in orga-
ciently challenging. He may not like to work
nisations like ours still have a stake at in shift duties. He may regard his imme-
their native place. By this I mean they diate boss as tyrant who is always trying
have some of their family members and to harass him. One may go on adding to
also their land at the native place. And such a list of possible reasons as to why
therefore they would like to go back to an employee may not like his job.
their native place and be amongst their
In such a situation, the employee would
family members as often as they can. This like to avoid attending the job. He attends
is a typical pattern amongst the workers the organization because he has to. By re-
in our textile mills in Bombay. Many of maining present he can get his salary which
them hail from the coastal districts of he needs rather badly. So such employees
Maharashtra and have their family members work only because of the financial returns.
and homes (as well as cultivable land) at They work for the sake' of money. Such
their native places. They stay here alone employees would like to avoid work as and
and send regular money orders to their when they can. And even when they re-
family members. They would visit their main present they are not at all enthusias-
native places fairly regularly, on an average tic about the work that they have to do.
once a year and try to be with their family
So given a choice such employees prefer
members whenever the family has any diffi-
to stay away from the work situation. For
culty. In Bombay we have a large number them any excuse to stay away from work-
of workers who hail from Uttar Pradesh situation is welcome. Even when they have
and Bihar who are in similar situation. They a slight head-ache they would remain absent.
come to Bombay to seek work but they
Job-related factors are likely to be opera-
do not wish to stay in Bombay permanently. tive in organisations where employees get
They cherish a dream of returning to their good salaries. These employees are not so
native places after they have accumulated much concerned about fear of starvation
a fortune. Such employees would go back and therefore they are in a position to
to their native place as often as they can. exercise their choice of remaining absent.
Usually in certain periods we find a large To such employees sickness benefit scheme
number of employees remaining absent in of E.S.I. can be very useful. They may
the months of May and June; during approach their E.S.I. doctor and claim a
Ganpati festival, holi festival and so on. sickness certificate. Many managements
Now such workers would also have a ten-
believe that absenteeism amongst the
dency to over-stay their leave when it is workers has increased because of the E.S.I.
sanctioned and this would be absence as scheme. These managements fail to realise
per our definition. So this typical back-
the basic issue-viz. their employees would

ABSENTEEISM — A PROBLEM SOLVING APPROACH
151
like to avoid the work situation and there-
these commodities, the family cannot survive
fore they make use of the E.S.I. doctors. In and therefore the employees will be forced
absence of E.S.I. scheme these employees to stay away from their jobs to secure these
would go to some other doctors and get articles.
a sickness certificate. These organisations
There are also a number of social/family
should do a little soul-searching rather than obligations that an employee is expected to
blaming the E.S.I. scheme for the absente-
fulfil. Death in the neighbourhood or
eism amongst their employees.
amongst his relatives friends can be one
In Western countries, the job-related such obligation. Marriages of his family
factors are important contributors to absen-
members/friends relatives etc. can be an-
teeism amongst their employees. A similar other such occasion. One can go on men-
situation may exist in some of our prospe-
tioning such family/social obligations. The
rous organisations. But we will have to employees have to fulfil these obliga-
find out about this by research.
tions and therefore they may have to stay
away from their jobs.
PERSONAL DIFFICULTIES
Over and above these family and social
obligations the employees may have some
An employee spends more of his time personal problems which may force them
outside the organization. His outside life to stay away from work. Addiction to al-
viz., family and social life is quite impor-
cohol, drugs or gambling can be one such
tant to him. And some of the difficulties category of problems. Sometimes these vices
that he is likely to experience in his family and other difficulties together may get reflat-
and social life may have repercussions on ed in the high level of indebtedness amongst
his 'on the job life'. There are quite a few the employees. And indebtedness and absen-
difficulties in the family life of the employees teeism sometimes go together. The usual
which may force them to stay away from symptom of such employees is that they
work. I will mention some of these:
become 'chronic' absentees (those who re-
One such difficulty is the sickness of the main absent far too often are regarded as
employee himself and/or his family mem-
chronic absentees) and come to the attention
bers. Such a difficulty is more or less un-
of the management.
predictable. And even the most sincere em-
Over and above the difficulties that I
ployee may have to remain absent occa-
have indicated here, there can quite a few
sionally because of this difficulty. Married other difficulties in family and social life
women employees are likely to experience which may contribute to the absenteeism
this difficulty more often as compared to amongst the employees.
men employees. Women employees are
I have indicated the three broad areas
forced to stay away when their husbands/ which contribute to absenteeism amongst
children/or they themselves are sick. Men the employees. From among these possible
employees are a bit more fortunate in this contributors we will have to find out which
respect.
are the operative factors in a given situation.
Another difficulty that many employees Researchers have observed that factors
are now experiencing is the shortage of operative in one organization may not be
essential commodities. One may have to operative in another organization. In other
spend many hours in various queues to words if one wants to find out the reasons
secure ration, vegetable oil, kerosene, cook-
as to why the employees remain absent in
ing gas and so on and so forth. Without a particular organisation, he will have to

152
K. G. DESAI
find out the reasons by conducting a study operations and so on and so forth. And
in that particular organization. Studies con-
then, may be the management can do some-
ducted elsewhere can at best give some thing about these situations.
'leads' to the researcher. But the operative
Take another illustration. If we have a
factors in an organization can only be un-
breakdown of absenteeism in terms of
earthed through research in that organiza-
different months in a year, we may obser-
tion.
ve a peculiarity that absenteeism is more
Therefore, our next step will be to in certain months (say May and June) and
consider how a systematic study of this almost negligible in others. This fact may
phenomenon can be conducted.
be suggestive of some Socio-cultural factors
operative in our situation. Many employees
ORGANIZING A RESEARCH STUDY
in B.E.S. & T. remain absent in these two
months. This has been happening every
Research in absenteeism in an organiza-
year Superficial observations have indicated
tion can be conducted in three stages. The that many of these employees go to their
first stage would consist of analysis of native places during these months. Having
attendance records of the employees. The understood this phenomenon, the manage-
second stage will include the interviews of ment may be in a position to do something
a few employees and executives. And the to avert such incidents.
third stage may involve an in-depth study
We can analyse the attendance records
of a few chronic absentees. I will explain department-wise, shift-wise, category-wise,
the three stages in details.
day-wise (different days in a week), date-
wise and so on and so forth. We can also
ANALYSIS OF ATTENDANCE RECORDS
try to find out whether there are a few
employees who make a substantial con-
The organizations usually maintain tribution to absenteeism. These would be
attendance records of all the employees. our chronic absentees and we can do some-
By analysis of the attendance records we thing about these employees.
hope to understand the patterns of absen-
There is one precaution that must be
teeism in the organisation. And these borne in mind. We may have to amend
patterns will enable us to locate the problem these records in order to follow our
as well as to suggest remedial measures in definition of absenteeism. Quite a few or-
some instances. I will explain what I am ganisations mark the employees as on leave
trying to say.
when he stays away without prior intimation
If we have a breakdown of absenteeism and if he has any leave to his credit.
in terms of different departments we may Employees are marked absent only when
discover that there is more absenteeism in they exhaust their leave and stay away
certain departments and some are relatively without prior intimation. So we may have
free of absenteeism. This itself would be to amend the attendance records before we
indicative of the possibility of some job-
begin to analyse them.
related factors playing an important role in
Analysis of records for a period of three
absenteeism in that particular department. years would be quite adequate for our
And we may then try to find out these purpose. Such an analysis of attendance
, factors. Some of the possibilities could be records can give us revealing information
inadequate supervision, uninteresting work about the employees who remain absent.
(as viewed by the employees), hazardous Some of the information can be used in

ABSENTEEISM — A PROBLEM SOLVING APPROACH
153
reducing absenteeism in the organization.
(iv) To secure information from super-
If our results indicate that absenteeism is
visors regarding reasons as to why
concentrated in a few departments only, then
their subordinates remain absent.
we will have to carry out a further investiga-
(v) To secure information from some
tion into the job-related factors which could
executives regarding the leave policy
be operative in these departments.
and its implementation.
If our results indicate that absenteeism
One can add to the above-mentioned list
is confined to say 2nd or 3rd shift we of purposes. In our survey we must have
may have to find out why employees remain a sample representing employees in all the
absent oftener during these shifts. One of departments and all the categories some
the obvious reasons is lack of waiting rooms
supervisors (especially, from important
for the employees. An employee who has departments) and a few executives (who
to work in 3rd shift which begins at mid-
can tell us about the leave policy) Such a
night may have to come early to the factory survey can throw light on some of the
because there are no convenient trains. And possible reasons as to why the employees
there is no place where he can wait for remain absent and also indicate to us some
2/3 hours. Providing a rest-room can be a remedial measures to reduce absenteeism.
solution. I am only trying to give some
illustrations about the remedial measures
CASE STUDIES OF CHRONIC ABSENTEES
that can be thought of when we have a
peculiar pattern in our absenteeism In quite a few studies on absenteeism
records.
we come across the category of employees
The second stage in our study will be labelled as chronic absentees. Quite a few
the sample survey of employees supervisors of them have genuine problems with which
and the executives.
they cannot cope. They would need help
and guidance to overcome them (for example
THE SAMPLE SURVEY
persons suffering from mental ailments,
chronic alcoholics, persons addicted to
Some of the purposes of the sample survey
gambling, persons having chronic illnesses
would be as under:
(the employees or may be their family
members), persons heavily indebted and
(i) To secure information about the so on and so forth. Some of these can be
living conditions of our employees helped to overcome their problems. Some-
such as their place of residence, type times one comes across employees who have
of accommodation, time required other commitments which they regard as
to commute back and forth, number more important than their jobs. (e.g. persons
of dependants etc.
working for some political party, persons
(ii) To secure information about satisfac-
having some part-time business and so on).
tions and dissatisfactions about the At times, there are individuals who are
work, salary and service conditions, denied something in the organisation and out
supervision, working conditions etc. of resentment they remain absent off and on.
which we label as job-related factors. (In one study I came across one such
(iii) To secure information regarding employee who felt that he was not given
views on leave facilities reasons for the promotion he deserved and was there-
remaining absent and views on fore quite resentful about the organisation).
consequences of remaining absent.
In dealing with these individuals one must

154
K. G. DESAI
be prepared for surprises. But we can understand the various contributory factors
investigate their problems and some of them responsible for absenteeism. The remedial
can certainly be helped.
and preventive measures can, then, follow.
CONCLUSIONS
Many studies have indicated that factors
responsible for absenteeism in one organiza-
In the above paragraphs I have tried tion may not be responsible in another
to indicate how one can study the pheno-
organisation. In other words, the manage-
menon of absenteeism in an organisation. ment will have to discover for itself the
After having understood the reasons why factors which are operative in its own
the employees remain absent, the manage-
organization. Studies in other organisation
ment can do something to minimise can, at best, give as some leads (i.e. ideas
absenteeism amongst the employees.
about possible factors) but we cannot assume
Let us accept the fact that absenteeism that these very factors may be operative in
cannot be totally eradicated. But through our organization. So we will have to do
persistent efforts it can certainly be mini-
our own spade-work in order to understand
mized. The step in this direction is to this phenomenon in our organization.