Absenteeism at work: the types of absenteeism due to illness

Illness can affect anyone. There’s no choice but to s(t)ick it out. But motivation, organisational context, working relationships, and ‘workability’ are decisive in the decision whether or not to stay at home. Therefore, one absence is not the same as another: a distinction is made between white, grey, and black absenteeism.

Organisations are faced with various forms of absenteeism. White absenteeism is the absence with a medical complaint as the cause. These employees are at home on the order of a doctor because they are sick. The black variant of absenteeism due to illness is the fraudulent opposite. The employee who reports in sick sits at home without a medical precedent. A classic example is staying at home to care for a sick child. It’s an unlawful absence, but also rather exceptional (around 5%).

Grey absenteeism: result of behaviour?

A more difficult form – and at about 70%, the most common – is grey absenteeism. The basis is a medical complaint, but it is not clear whether this complaint is a real reason to be 100% unable to work. In other words, there is a behavioural component involved. Such absenteeism is often rooted in job aspects that are not ideal, such as tensions at work.

But some external factors also come paired with psychological complaints, which give rise to absenteeism from work. Employees with financial difficulties may experience feelings of unease, worry, or insomnia. In such situations, it the employee may decide not to communicate this at work. Or it may not even occur to the employee to do so. The employee tries to find a solution by themselves, but if this fails, then that person is faced with the problem.

Remove the taboos around talking about absenteeism

However, the employer can play a mediating role in such situations. By providing part of the solution yourself or by referring to other forms of assistance (the confidential advisor, the occupational physician, a psychologist, etc.). As a manager, therefore, it is important to make it clear to employees that problems that are not initially work-related, such as private issues, can still be discussed.

In order to effectively tackle grey absenteeism, management and managers need to be alert to changes in behaviour. By noticing signals in time and entering into a conversation, adjustments can be made at an early stage

Change in behaviour: recognise the signals
Thinkingless resourceful, reduced sense of humour, wandering mind
Feelingworries, loneliness, mood swings
Actingmakes more mistakes, criticising, restless or indecisive
Workingabsent more often, takes more holidays, is less driven
Increase in physical complaintsneck and/or headaches, colds


In order to do this in an empathic and focused way, it is often interesting to provide training for those people who manage employees.

Sick, but still present

A last type of absenteeism is pink absenteeism, also called presentationism. In that case, employees are too sick to come to work, but they show up anyway. This is also detrimental: these workers are most probably not or insufficiently productive, there is a risk that the disease will become more serious, and, in the case of communicable diseases, there is a risk that they will infect other colleagues.

In the case of black, grey, and pink absenteeism, the employee’s space for decision-making plays a role. Good internal practices and working atmosphere as well as a clear absenteeism policy are important factors to encourage employees to be positive about whether or not to report in absent. A control doctor can also control the absence threshold as an external trigger.

Tackle frequent absenteeism in a timely manner

In addition to a breakdown by type, absenteeism can also be broken down by duration:

  • short absence (less than one month),
  • long absence (longer than one month), or
  • frequent absences.

As an employer, you decide for yourself where the limit lies for frequent absences. A widely used standard is more than three absences on an annual basis. The recurring, short absence can be a signal of underlying physical or psychological complaints or imminent long-term absence.

In addition to making absenteeism a subject for discussion, it is also possible to examine the state of the employee’s motivation at that moment as an important preventive step. Other common triggers of frequent short absences are:

  • the presence of an absenteeism culture in your organisation,
  • excessive working pressure, or
  • poor organisation of the work.