The 3 types of workplace absences & how to manage them

7 min read  |   8 September, 2023   By Laura Sands

A man is feeling unwell, and has layered up with a scarf. One hand is on his forehead, as if checking temperature, and his eyes are closed. In the other hand, he's holding up a thermometer.

Time off work is one of those subjects that quickly becomes all-consuming. It’s too easy for workplace absences to run out of control, leaving managers and business owners struggling to find cover for essential roles.

There are three broad categories of workplace absence, which are as follows:

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

In this article, we will look at examples which fall under each of the three categories.

These require different handling and management as they present very different challenges and varying levels of administration to ensure they are dealt with properly.

'Life happens’ and there often very good reasons for unplanned and unauthorised absences. However, absences may also be a warning sign that something is not right with one or more employees in terms of their health, their engagement and even a company’s own culture. For this reason, careful and accurate absence management is important in all businesses.


1. Authorised absence

This category is the most easily explained and these absences are easiest to manage. They 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 the most common type of agreed absence. All employees are entitled to annual leave – it is key to physical and mental health, helping people stay rested, happy, well-motivated and productive. However, 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.

Keeping track of holiday requests has three purposes. First, it helps you ensure you have enough staff in the office to maintain productivity and good customer service. Second, it ensures people do not exceed their annual leave allowances. Finally, it can encourage employees to make full use of their holiday allowance, helping them stay in good health. Using a system like Breathe makes this quick and easy as it includes dedicated annual leave management functionality. Not sure what your team’s holiday entitlement should be? Our holiday calculator has everything you need.


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.


Medical appointments

Many people will need to take time off for medical appointments during the course of a year. Appointments may be for themselves or for others that they care for. 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 allow 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. Recent sickness absence figures have been high - the CIPD found that 67% of organisations count Covid-19 as one of their top three reasons for absence during 2022.

Sickness absence continues to be a factor for employers. 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.

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


Stress, long Covid and long-term conditions

Long-term conditions and stress have always been a factor, but since the pandemic, this problem has grown. The number of people who have reported stress, anxiety and other symptoms of mental ill health continues to increase in the wake of the pandemic. What’s more, just over a quarter of organisations report long Covid as one of the top causes of long term absence. Extended waiting lists for operations mean some employees are taking long-term sick leave as they are physically unable to work until operated on – yet another impact of the pandemic. These conditions require careful and sensitive management, with the help of experts such as occupational health practitioners. Our guide to mental health in the workplace is full of information to help support employees and SME leaders.



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


Be aware of presenteeism

As difficult as it can be to manage employee absence, employers must also keep an eye out for presenteeism. Presenteeism – or working when unwell – happens when employees feel a pressure to work despite not being at their best. As well as spreading illness in the workplace, presenteeism affects productivity and can indicate problems with your workplace culture. Presenteeism is especially prevalent for employees working from home.

3. Unauthorised absence

These are potentially the most worrying types of absences. Here, an employee essentially goes ‘off-radar’ for a short or longer period of time without providing a reason.



Lateness is the most common type of unauthorised absence. We’re all late from time to time often due to travel issues and other 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 or other health issues. It might also suggest domestic problems such as problems with childcare. In some circumstances, disciplinary action may be necessary. In other cases, people may benefit from targeted support if there is an underlying reason for being regularly late.


Virtual unauthorised absences

These may also be a cause for concern. Virtual unauthorised absences take place when someone who is working remotely is either absent from a pre-arranged online meeting via a platform such as Zoom or MS Teams or present but invisible, having switched 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. It's just as important to record these absences and check in on these people if the number of virtual unauthorised absence increases. As with 'regular' unauthorised absence, there may be underlying issues to address.

Effective employee location management

With many businesses adopting hybrid working practices which combine homeworking with time spent in a company's workplace, it is increasingly complicated to keep track of where people are working.

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 whenever you need to.

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-day trial of Breathe so you can test-drive the system’s location management functionality alongside its many other features.


Author: Laura Sands

Laura is a writer who enjoys getting into the detail of subjects and sharing that knowledge with snappy, interesting content. When not typing away, she enjoys walks in the woods and curling up with a good book and mug of something hot.

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