Psychological Causes of Absenteeism

· October 19, 2018

Did you know that looking at your private emails during work hours is a type of absenteeism? In general, this practice is a deliberate absenteeism from work during the legal work schedule. It can also be considered desertion of your job position’s duties, rights, and functions. But what’s behind this behavior? Why does someone become irresponsible at work?

This is a highly complex issue to discuss due to all its variables. Additionally, it’s an endemic phenomenon that isn’t affected by sex, religion, or age. It’s influenced by many factors, among them psychosocial ones. Depending on the specific case, they may vary substantially. This article will attempt to dig deeper into what causes absenteeism.

Types of work absenteeism

In general, professionals categorize absenteeism into the three following types:

Empty work space.

  • Present: this happens when the employee does tasks that aren’t part of their work schedule. For example, when they’re doing online shopping, reading their personal email, taking personal calls from friends or family members, etc. This translates into significant losses for the company because this behavior tends to continue over time. The employee doesn’t perform their duties effectively and this affects the company’s productivity. After several warnings, this may result in a suspension or firing.
  • Justified: the employee isn’t at their desk working after informing the company or a supervisor of the reason for their absence. For example, when workers have doctor’s appointments, vacation days, maternity or paternity leave, a death in the family, work accidents, among others.
  • Unjustified or not notified: it’s the opposite of the previous type. The worker doesn’t notify or justify their absence from their duties at the company. In other words, it’s non-authorized absenteeism, so no permission was given for them to abandon their workstation or desk. Similar to present absenteeism, it could result in the justified dismissal of the employee.

Psychological causes of absenteeism

It’s fundamental to know all the causes in order to understand why it’s an endemic issue and what are the consequences it may carry for both the employee and the employer. As stated before, the psychosocial aspects are the ones that best explain work absenteeism.

Depersonalization, demotivation, and low self-esteem

In the last few decades, work stopped having a value on its own. In other words, it became so instrumentalized that it ended up lacking any real intrinsic value. The so feared “crisis” turned many employees into automatons. Working at their desk is the only way they can move forward and confront their responsibilities in life.


This is due to the fact that the only thing that becomes important for employees is their salary at the end of the month. Therefore, they stop paying attention to their performance and concentrate on their income in order to go on with their regular spending. The most direct effect of this phenomenon is the depersonalization of the worker. The employee doesn’t perceive their job as something that they enjoy, but more as a means to afford their lifestyles. During this time, this behavior generates demotivation, which has a negative impact on their state of mind.

“Absenteeism is a universal problem, it’s costly for both the organization and the individual. It’s influenced by a constellation of different interrelated factors.”

-Rhodes and Steers, 1990-

Work stress

Currently, some companies still adopt productivity policies based on minimizing personnel. In other words, they either let people go or don’t hire new workers while expecting to maintain the same levels of productivity. This puts more pressure on the employees who now have to take on more responsibilities and tasks while working the same hours and the same salary.

What’s the result? Workers are then overloaded with their duties, they get demotivated falls, and work stress increases. The latter is the main psychological cause of work absenteeism.

Stress is the cause of work absenteeism.

Stress comes into the picture due to an imbalance between what we need to do and the resources available to do that work. In the office environment, the International Labour Organization defines it as a disease that poses a “danger to the economy of industrialized countries”.

Consequences of work stress

Some of the consequences of work stress may show up in the short, medium or long-term, depending on the person and their coping strategies. Here are some of the psychological effects:

  • Difficulty concentrating or understanding.
  • Anxiety or depression.
  • Cognitive deterioration.
  • Insomnia.
  • Some mental disorders.

The physical consequences show up as cardiovascular (hypertension, arrhythmias) or dermatologic (dermatitis, alopecia, urticaria) alterations. Other physical consequences may include sexual problems (erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation) or even musculoskeletal problems (muscular cramps, ticks, muscular tension).

This biopsychosocial disorder is not something to take lightly, neither by the organizations nor the workers themselves. The companies must help their employees break free from this stress. An additional problem is simulation. This means that faking a disease or mental disorder in order to justify work absenteeism exists, since this condition is difficult to prove and control.

Therefore, work absenteeism is a problem directly related to the company’s policies, the working environment, and worker’s dissatisfaction. This problem requires an efficient and smart solution that will depend on each worker.