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.
- Edwards, & Whitston, C. (1993) Attending to Work: The Management of Attendance and Shop Floor Order. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Harrison, A. & Martocchio, J. J. (1998) Time for Absenteeism: A 20-Year Review of Origins, Offshoots, and Outcomes. Journal of Management 24: 305-50.
- Johns, (1997) Contemporary Research on Absence from Work: Correlates, Causes and Consequences. International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology 12: 115-73.
- Johns, (2002) Absenteeism and Mental Health. In: Thomas, J. C. & Hersen, M. (Eds.), Hand book of Mental Health in the Workplace. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Johns, (2003) How Methodological Diversity has Improved our Understanding of Absenteeism from Work. Human Resource Management Review 13: 157-84.
- Johns, & Xie, J. L. (1998) Perceptions of Absence from Work: People’s Republic of China versus Canada. Journal of Applied Psychology 83: 515-30.
- Roscigno, J. & Hodson, R. (2004) The Organizational and Social Foundations of Worker Resistance. American Sociological Review 69: 1439.
- Tansey, R. & Hyman, M. R. (1992) Public Relations, Advocacy Ads, and the Campaign against Absenteeism during World War II. Business and Professional Ethics Journal 11: 129-64.
- Turnbull, & Sapsford, D. (1992) A Sea of Discontent: The Tides of Organized and ‘‘Unorganized’’ Conflict on the Docks. Sociology 26: 291-309.
- 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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