Guidelines for managing short-term absenteeism

Authored by Lucy Rowlands, Head of Psychology

Short term absenteeism is the most problematic absence behavior to manage. Alongside standard return-to-work interviews, clear guidelines should be established about when to first commence your investigation of frequent short-term absence.

What is short-term recurrent absence?

Short-term recurrent absence refers to repeated, frequent absence for short periods (say, one or two days at a time). This pattern is likely both to undermine the individual’s own performance and to be disruptive to colleagues and the wider organisation. In practice, such absence is often difficult to handle because the manager has to consider questions such as:

  • At what point does occasional absence start to become problematic?
  • Does the absence appear to be justified on medical grounds?
  • If so, are there any underlying causes that can be addressed?
  • If not, what steps should you take to improve attendance?


Each case will require different treatment, and the line manager needs to start by gathering as much information as possible about the nature and causes of the absence. The first step will normally be to review the individual absence record report and other data relating to the absence patterns. Key considerations include:

  • Review number of days lost and the reasons given for each spell of absence.
  • Is there any noticeable pattern to the absence, for example recurrent absences on Mondays or Fridays, or one day a month every month?
  • What proportion of the absence is certificated or uncertified?
  • What reasons have been given for previous absence? Are the causes varied or does there appear to be a linkage between the various absences?
  • What information has been gathered from previous return-to-work interviews?
  • What anecdotal or other evidence might be available about possible underlying causes of absence?

It’s important that the manager doesn’t jump to conclusions simply on the basis of this data. However, this kind of analysis will help the manager identify potential issues to explore with the employee.

Attendance review meetings

Attendance Review Meetings should be scheduled whenever an employee reaches a Trigger Point, or you have concerns about an employees’ attendance. Although this session is likely to be longer and more wide-ranging than a standard return-to-work interview, it should not at this stage be presented as part of a disciplinary process.

The purpose and style of the meeting should be a positive and constructive one. The employee should be helped and encouraged to understand that their absence levels present a problem to the organisation, and the discussion should then explore the reasons for the absence with the aim of identifying practical steps that might be taken to reduce absence levels in the future.

Conducting an effective attendance review requires some skill on the part of the line manage.  Training will help managers understand some of the potential causes of absence, the kinds of symptoms that might be indicative of particular causal factors, and the various approaches that can be adopted when reviewing absence issues with employees.

Experience suggests that the reasons for high absence levels are often multi-faceted and may not even be fully understood by the individuals involved. The employee might, for example, be unaware that they have some underlying medical condition, or behaviorally pattern or trigger that results in absence. Mental health, substance abuse, lack of sleep, role disengagement, personal relationships are all factors that may impact attendance at work.

Even if the employee is aware of the underlying cause the sensitivity of the issues involved may well mean that they’re reluctant to discuss them with a third party, particularly in a work context.

The manager may therefore explore all the issues as widely as possible, avoiding drawing early conclusions, and listening carefully to what’s said, how it’s expressed, and, in some cases, perhaps also listening for what’s not being said.

If the manager feels any doubts about the possible nature or causes of the absence, it could also be appropriate to seek further expert or professional input before proceeding further. Your HR department can assist in this regard.

Taking action

Having weighed up all the available evidence, the manager will need to judge what action is appropriate to address the problem. The key objective here should simply be to address the absence problem, and you should consider any appropriate steps that may help to achieve this end. Formal action on grounds of discipline or capability will generally be the last resort, unless there are very strong reasons for taking immediate action.

The starting point will normally be a constructive discussion with the individual, building on the absence counseling process, which aims to identify practical steps that can be taken to improve attendance. The nature and mix of these steps will depend entirely on the apparent requirements of the specific case, but possible actions might include:

  • The provision of medical or similar support that might help the employee to resolve an underlying or recurrent problem.
  • Discussing and agreeing specific changes in lifestyle, which might reduce recurrent problems.
  • Exploring sources of support and/or advice that might alleviate factors affecting attendance.
  • Considering logistical issues relating to the individual’s working hours or location, for example if they’re working very ‘unsocial’ hours or have a lengthy journey to work.
  • Reviewing the nature and level of the individual’s role.

In exploring these and similar options, your aim should be to identify any reasonable steps that might be taken by the organisation to support the individual in improving their attendance. This should mean that you’re providing practical support that’s also consistent with the operational needs of the organisation.

This isn’t a one-way contract. In parallel with exploring constructive steps, you may be emphasizing the individual’s own responsibilities for attending work. Depending on the circumstances of the case, you could link any positive support with a tightening of the provisions surrounding absence. For example, you could:

  • Indicate to the individual that, following the provision of additional support, you expect absence levels to improve across a defined timescale.
  • If this improvement doesn’t happen, or if absence levels increase again in the future, the individual can expect to be invited to another review meeting.
  • Make medical certification a requirement for all absence.

Regardless of the combination of actions you take in a given case, it’s essential that monitoring continues over an extended period, with reviews of progress scheduled with the individual immediately following the Absence Review Meeting. The frequency of these reviews will depend on the nature of the problems and the actions you decided on, but initially it will generally be appropriate to meet with the individual at least once a month.

Your discussion should review the actions being taken and assess whether they appear to be having the desired effect on the person’s absence levels. If there has been no improvement, you’ll need to explore the reasons for this, and then take further action if needed, including consideration of formal disciplinary action.

Take outs!

  • Absences should be investigated promptly, and the employee asked to give an explanation of their absence.
  • When there is no medical advice to support frequent self-certified absences, the employee should be asked to consult a doctor to establish whether medical treatment is necessary.
  • If after investigation it appears that there were no good reasons for the absences, the matter should be dealt with under the disciplinary procedure.
  • In all cases, the employee should be told what improvement in attendance is expected and advised of the likely consequences if it doesn’t happen.

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