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The three types of workplace absences and how to manage them

6 min read  |   8 September, 2021   By Nick Hardy


Although there are many reasons for an employee’s absence from work, these will typically fall under one of the following three categories:

  1. Authorised absence
  2. Unplanned absence
  3. Unauthorised absence

In this article, we will look at examples which fall under each of three categories and as we will see, these require different handling and management as they present very different challenges and varying levels of administration to ensure they are handled properly.

Although ‘life happens’ and there often very good reasons for unplanned and unauthorised absences, they may also be warning signs that something is not right with one or more employees in terms of their health, their engagement and even a company’s own culture. Careful and accurate absence management is a must.

1. Authorised absence

This category is the most easily explained and absences which fall under this are those easiest to manage. These are, quite simply, pre-agreed and pre-scheduled absences organised between an employee and their manager. The most common absences which fall under this category are:

Annual leave

This is, by far, the most common type of agreed absence. All employees are entitled to annual leave and it is important that they take this in order to relax and recharge. This is key to physical and mental health, helping people stay rested, happy, well-motivated and productive. Managing and documenting holiday requests can be time-consuming even in businesses with relatively small teams, especially if people are taking time off at different times throughout the year also taking public holidays into consideration.

It is, of course, very important to keep track of holiday in terms of ensuring people are not exceeding their annual leave allowances and also encouraging people to make full use of this. Using a system like Breathe makes this quick and easy as it includes dedicated annual leave management functionality. Use our holiday calculator to work out holiday entitlement.

Maternity and paternity leave

Maternity and paternity leave are almost always pre-agreed with an employee, providing you with time to organise cover as they spend time with their new child or children. Again, this needs careful management, with the dates on which an employee left to go on leave and the date they will return to work being pre-agreed.

Many people will need to take time off for medical appointments during the course of a year. Appointments may be for themselves and also others for whom they have a duty of care. Sometimes people can plan ahead and arrange appointments days, weeks or months ahead; at other times these could be due to emergencies, in which case they will fall under the unplanned absence category.

Time off in lieu

Time off in Lieu (TOIL). This applies when an employer provides extra time off to an employee who has, for example, worked outside of their usual working hours to complete a task or project.

Training days

Ongoing training is an important aspect of learning and development. Employees may need to attend courses out of the office and it's important to record details of their absences. 

Working from home

Increasing numbers of employers are allowing people to work from home on either a permanent or hybrid basis, where they combine homeworking with pre-agreed periods of working in their workplace. Either way, it’s important to keep tracking of when and where people are working at all times.

2. Unplanned absence

Life doesn’t always go to plan and sometimes people need to take time off for one (or more) of a variety of different reasons, the most common of which is sickness. According to a recent CIPD survey, in 2020 the average number of sick days in the UK was 5.8 per employee which clearly illustrates the scale of illness related unplanned absences.

With unplanned absences comes the challenge of documenting these and keeping a permanent record, ensuring you can see how many days per month, quarter, and year an employee has taken time off due to illness and the reasons for this. Patterns and trends could emerge which will indicate if support is required and if there are persistent and even underlying problems which need to be addressed and discussed with an employee.

As much as employers have a duty of care towards their employees, accurately recording sickness related absences is key to planning extra cover for absent employees while they are away.

Of course, there are many different types of physical and mental illness, some of which are more serious than others and there will be times when an employee may need an extended period of time-off. Documenting this in addition to any information an employee has provided about the condition and treatment they are receiving is important and can help form the basis of programme such as Employee Assistance Plans (EAP) and occupational health.

Stress, Long Covid and long-term conditions

The number of people who have reported stress, anxiety and other symptoms of mental health has increased during the pandemic and there are predictions that we will see a growth in employees who are diagnosed with long terms conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Long Covid. Both will need very careful and sensitive management as we move forward. We have written a guide to mental health in the workplace which you are very welcome to download.


Finally, time off due to injury is also a common reason for an unplanned absence. People sustain injuries at home and at work and these need to be recorded, taking into account any steps which need to be taken to help people recuperate in line with any medical advice with which they have been provided. This could be used to form the basis for the development of an EAP or occupational health programme.

3. Unauthorised absence

These are potentially the most worry types of absences where an employee essentially goes ‘off-radar’ for a short or longer period of time for no reason provided.

Lateness is the most common type of unauthorised absence. We’re all late from time to time often due to travel issues and other non-serious minor setbacks. On the other hand, if someone is late to work on a regular basis, this could indicate more serious issues, such as poor engagement, a lack of commitment, stress and other underlying health issues. In some circumstances, disciplinary action may need to be taken. In other cases, people may need support if there is an underlying reason for being late on a regular basis.

Virtual unauthorised absences may also be a cause for concern. These are when someone who is working remotely is either absent from a pre-arranged online meeting via a platform such as Zoom of MS Teams or absent but invisible, having switch off video, audio or both. This could be because they are attending simply to listen-in on a meeting or it could indicate a lack of engagement. Recording these absences and checking in on these people if the number of virtual unauthorised absence does increase is recommended to see if there are any issues which need to be addressed.

Effective employee location management

With many businesses adopting hybrid working practices which combine homeworking with time spend in a company's workplace, keeping track of where people are working has now become more complicated.

Using a system like Breathe which includes dedicated location management functionality can help this make life easier. It’s important to remember that keeping track of team members’ whereabouts isn’t just good management practice, it is also important from a health and safety perspective. You need to know where someone is working at any given time so you can contact them quickly and easily wheneve the need arises.

Breathe also includes many other features for managing absences alongside the means of storing documents related to company policies and employee records. 

We provide a free 14-trial of Breathe so you can test-drive the system’s location management functionality alongside its’ many other features.

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