Teams & Groups

Absenteeism and Work-Units

Employee absenteeism can be very costly to the organization. With the average daily cost for an absent employee estimated at $500, it becomes obvious that an annual decrease of one absence per employee can add up to substantial gains for an organization.

Looking at Absenteeism

Researchers and organizations alike have often considered absenteeism to be an individual problem. The standard solution has been to take action to minimize the absences of those individuals who have higher absenteeism rates. While this is not to be discounted as a strategy, looking at work-units as a whole is emerging as a less resource intensive, but equally effective, method of decreasing absenteeism.

Why Work-Units?

Work-units, a collective group of employees with similar jobs, supervisors, and hierarchical positions in the organization, tend to share similar attitudes about the organization and job. Theoretically, as new members join the group, the collective attitudes of the group influence the new members, leading to more cohesion throughout the group. The two most important attitudes, as they relate to absenteeism, are job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

Job Satisfaction

The collective sense of satisfaction with important aspects of the job, like supervision, coworkers, and job activities, is known as unit-level job satisfaction. It has been found that higher levels of job satisfaction for the collective work group are related to decreased absenteeism. Some of the potential reasons for this relationship include:
  • A greater sense of community and involvement among work-unit members
  • Greater levels of support from coworkers within the unit for emotional (e.g., coping with personal issues) and logistic (e.g., transportation problems) causes of absenteeism
  • The emergence of a culture with an emphasis on coming to work to support the other members of the work-unit

Organizational Commitment

An overall sense of attachment to the organization is described as unit-level organizational commitment. Similar to job satisfaction, more organizational commitment for the work-unit tends to lead to decreased absenteeism. Greater amounts of organizational commitment may lead to a more intense desire to do what is right for the organization, such as attending work whenever possible.

Joint Effects of Job Satisfaction and Organizational Commitment

While job satisfaction and organizational commitment have been independently related to absenteeism, the combined effect of these two can be exponential. In other words, when a work-unit has high levels of both job satisfaction and organizational commitment absenteeism rates are much lower than when only one of the attitudes is high or when neither is high. Interestingly, it appears that organizational commitment is more important to absenteeism than is job satisfaction, because the beneficial effects of high levels of job satisfaction are minimized when organizational commitment is low, while the inverse is not necessarily true.

Practical Implications

A new picture is being painted regarding absenteeism at the unit-level, suggesting that undertaking process changes designed to increase organizational commitment and job satisfaction of a unit may be fruitful endeavors. Since the concept of examining unit-level absenteeism is a fairly new one, interventions designed to increase organizational commitment, job satisfaction, or both at the unit-level have not been tested. One suggestion is to implement unit-level absenteeism goals and absenteeism competitions across units, each with substantive rewards, as this may lead to more cohesive groups and greater levels of organizational commitment and job satisfaction.

Final Thoughts

The relationships between organizational commitment, job satisfaction, and absenteeism suggest that work units create their own unique cultures, separate from those of the organization. For the organization as a whole to realize decreased levels of absenteeism, each of these unique cultures needs to be developed such that absenteeism within the work-unit is not an acceptable practice.

David Daly


This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Hausknecht, J. P., Hiller, N. J., & Vance, R. J. (2008). Work-unit absenteeism: Effects of satisfaction, commitment, labor market conditions, and time. Academy of Management Journal, 51, 1223-1245.