Absenteeism is failing to report for scheduled work. As such, it is the violation of a social obligation to be in a particular place at a particular time   ( Johns   1997;  Harrison   & Martocchio 1998). Traditionally, absenteeism was viewed as an indicator of poor individual performance and a breach of an implicit contract between employee and employer. Thus, it  was seen  as  a  management  problem  and framed in economic or quasi economic terms. Indeed, economists  most frequently view absenteeism  in labor supply terms.   More recently,  absenteeism  has  increasingly been viewed as an indicator of psychological, medical, or social adjustment to work.

The  most  prominent  of  the  psychological models is the withdrawal model, which assumes that absenteeism represents individual withdrawal  from   dissatisfying working  conditions. This model finds empirical support in a negative association between absence and job satisfaction, especially satisfaction with  regard  to the  content  of the work itself. It  also finds support   in   a  ‘‘progression’’ of  withdrawal from being late, to  being absent, to  quitting a job.   Psychological  approaches  have  also linked  employee  disposition  to  absenteeism. Hence, the conscientious, those high in positive affect, and those who score high on composite tests of integrity are disinclined to be absent. Dispositional explanations find  some corroboration   in   the   fact   that   individual absenteeism is  fairly  stable  over  time,  even in the face of changed work situations.

Medical models find support in research that links absenteeism to smoking, problem drinking,  low back pain,  and migraine. However, absence ascribed to medical causes frequently exhibits  motivational  correlates  that  suggest voluntariness. The  line between psychological and medical causation is surely blurry, as positive links between both work stress and depression   and   absenteeism   illustrate.   Although medical  mediation  is  often  implied  in  the stress–absence connection, this  has not  often been explicitly tested. Correspondingly, depressive tendencies might underpin much absence ascribed to poor physical health, as might the adoption  of  a  culturally  approved  sick role. Thus,  placing the adjective sickness before the word absence carries a burden of more proof than is usually offered.

Another  stream of scholarship that  speaks to the adjustive aspects of absence is decidedly more social in nature, and thus  of particular interest  to  sociologists. Much  evidence indicates  that   absence  is  generally  viewed  as mildly deviant workplace behavior. For example, people tend  to hold negative stereotypes of absentees, underreport  their own absenteeism, and view their own attendance record as superior to that of their peers. In turn,  negative attributions  about  absence give  rise  to three important consequences: the behavior is open to  considerable social control,  sensitive to social context, and the potential source of considerable workplace conflict.

One of the most important findings of con temporary  absence research is  the  extent  to which the behavior is open to social influence. This   stands   as   a   salient   complement   to explanations that portray absence as a component of  individual  employee performance, a personal  response  to   job  dissatisfaction,  a reflection of disposition, or a consequence of medical misfortune. Absence is open to social influence for two reasons. First,  the connotation of mild deviance makes people sensitive to but  not  absolutist concerning its  occurrence. Second, it is far from clear what constitutes a fair and reasonable level of absence. Markedly different   absence  rates   across  social  units (e.g., teams,   departments,   plants,   nations) are suggestive of this ambiguity. For instance, absence rates have been shown to vary by as much  as  a  ratio  of  7:1  between  developed nations.

It    was   this   observation   of   distinctive absence levels and patterns across meaningful social groupings that gave rise to the notion of absence  cultures, which (in their  strong form) constitute shared agreement about the appropriate meaning and expression of absenteeism within a social unit.  Shared  views about the legitimacy  of the behavior under  various circumstances are crucial. Evidence in support of the absence culture concept has been cumulative. At its base is considerable research suggesting that  individual absence is  influenced by social (often work group) norms, with such norms having been operationalized in a wide variety  of  ways.  Absenteeism  is generally negatively related to work group cohesiveness. This said, some research shows cohesive units colluding to take days off. However, absentee ism seems to  peak under  conditions of very low  social integration:  when cohesiveness is low, discourse on the legitimacy of the behavior  is  missing,  and  deviant  overtones  lack salience. The   most  persuasive evidence  for the existence of absence cultures derives from formal  cross level  studies.  In this research, work group absenteeism and beliefs about the behavior (generally aggregated to  the  group level) have been shown to influence the absenteeism of individual group members.

Most recently, the absence culture concept has been extended to understand  how absenteeism is viewed and enacted among various occupations, social classes, and  national cultures.  Much   of  this  research  can  also  be described as cross level. In general, more prestigious   occupations   exhibit   lower   absence rates.  However, the  dominant social class of the  community in  which employees live has been shown to influence absenteeism over and above occupational  norms  per  se  (Virtanen et  al.  2000). Although there  may be  differences in  the  perceived legitimacy of absence across national cultures, the basic connotation of deviance seems to hold. However, indigenous mechanisms can reconcile the tendency to be  self serving  about  one’s  own  attendance with the need to exhibit collective solidarity. For instance, Johns and Xie (1998) found that both  Chinese  and  Canadians  underreported their own actual absenteeism and viewed their own attendance records as superior to those of their  work group peers.  However, the  more collective Chinese reconciled this self serving by   viewing  the   attendance   of  their work groups as being much superior to that of the occupational norm.

Given  its  deviant  connotations  and  economic consequences for employers, absentee ism  has  often  been  a source of  conflict in organizations. For  these same reasons, it  has also been a result of conflict, a way to assert control in the workplace. Given their respective organizational roles, managers and workers  often  hold  different  expectations about employee attendance, with managers expecting less absence than do their subordinates. As a result of this, excessive absenteeism is one of the most common subjects of labor arbitration. However,  contemporary  work designs  that stress  highly  interdependent  team  structures and self management have also prompted conflict among employees themselves concerning absenteeism, as it  is often an impediment to smooth teamwork.

On the other hand, conflict can also prompt absenteeism. At the heart of this are matters of social exchange. Thus, there is substantial research by social and organizational psychologists showing elevated absenteeism when distributive justice (i.e., equity) and support from management are perceived to be low. Hence, the appropriation of valuable time is one way to achieve fairer balance in one’s exchange with the  organization,  especially when  paid sick days are available. Sociologists and industrial relations scholars have been most interested in the  more collective  manifestations  of  such exchange problems,  seeing absenteeism as  a means of asserting control in the work setting and resisting abuse by management. However, absenteeism has most often been viewed as a relatively individualized  and  less  organized form of resistance, at least compared to strikes. Nonetheless, clear cases of collusion in support of absence have been observed, and unionized employees have been repeatedly shown to exhibit  higher levels of absenteeism compared to those without representation.

Longitudinal research and  research that  is sensitive to  social context illustrate  how the social construction of absenteeism can change over time. For  instance, Tansey and Hyman (1992) illustrate how this otherwise innocuous workplace behavior was reframed by employers  to  be  a  treasonous  menace  during  the World War II production drive. Turnbull  and Sapsford (1992) illustrate how absenteeism on the British docks changed from tolerated self expression  to  an  entrenched  expression  of industrial conflict as technology and labor laws changed. In recent years, the increase in dual career couples and elder care issues, and the consequent drive for ‘‘family friendly’’ work places, has challenged the deviant overtones of absenteeism among some employees and employers.

The  foregoing suggests that  absenteeism is work behavior with a variety of meanings (socially constructed or not) masquerading as a unitary phenomenon. Also, the behavior can be studied at levels of analysis ranging from individual to national. These factors offer both challenges and  opportunities  for  researchers.

Because absenteeism has such a wide variety of causes, it  has attracted  the  attention  of a variety of disciplines, including sociology, psychology, economics, management, industrial relations, medicine, rehabilitation, and law. Except    for    integrative   literature    reviews ( Johns  1997; Harrison  & Martocchio 1998), however, there have not been enough synergies among these disciplinary approaches to absence. On the other hand, in part due to this multidisciplinary interest and in part due to the difficulties inherent in studying an infrequent and mildly deviant behavior, absenteeism has been subjected to a great range and variety of research methods, a phenomenon that is very rare   in   the   organizational  sciences  ( Johns 2003). This multimethod approach, much advocated but seldom applied, has led to great advances in understanding the subtlety of absenteeism among those willing to accept the full complexity of this apparently routine work behavior.


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  9. Turnbull, & Sapsford, D. (1992) A Sea of Discontent: The Tides of Organized and ‘‘Unorganized’’ Conflict  on  the  Docks.  Sociology  26: 291-309.
  10. Virtanen, , Nakari, R., Ahonen, H., et al. (2000) Locality and Habitus:  The  Origins of Sickness Absence Practices. Social Science and Medicine 50: 27-39.

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