Absence from work – Ireland

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Health and well-being at work,
  • Working conditions,
  • Published on: 20 July 2010

Tony Dobbins

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited or approved by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

This report examines the extent of absence from work in Ireland, along with its causes, costs and some policy issues. The extent of absence has declined in recent years, and there are signs that this will continue – particularly given the impact of the current economic recession, with employees fearful of job loss. While employers have expressed concern about absence levels, trade unions argue that Ireland fares well compared with other EU countries.

Definitions and aims of study

Absence from work is frequently discussed in terms of its costs. These costs were outlined in a report published by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions in 1997 – Preventing absenteeism at the workplace. Since that time, as many reports of the European Working Conditions Observatory (EWCO) and the European Industrial Relations Observatory (EIRO) note, it has become an issue in many countries; one approach has been to try to reduce the costs by tightening rules on sick pay.

In addition to a focus on costs, sickness absence has been connected to wider debates on the quality of work in two main respects. Firstly, there is growing interest in well-being and health at work. Attention has thus turned to positive ways in which well-being can be promoted, with improved attendance being a possible consequence. Secondly, the concept of ‘presenteeism’ – meaning being present at work while feeling ill or being unable to work at normal capacity – has emerged. Presenteeism may mean that measured absence levels are low but also that there are hidden stresses and pressures on employees.

The purpose of this comparative study is to provide an overview of the extent of absence from work and policies for its management, and to place this overview in the context of wider debates on well-being and presenteeism. The report assesses the current picture in terms of the level of absence and how the problem is treated – purely in terms of cost or in relation to the quality of work. It also examines the effect of the economic recession on levels of absence and how the problem is viewed.

Absence is defined as non-attendance at work when attendance was scheduled or clearly expected. The specific focus is a period of absence lasting longer than three days; the comparative analysis seeks information on this level of absence but recognises that data may not always be available.

The study has two main themes: the extent and patterns of absence, together with any trends; and means of control and policies towards absence.

Extent and patterns of absence

1. Broad patterns

Where data are sought on the extent of absence, please use if possible the definition given in the briefing note. If available data do not distinguish between absence lasting longer than three days and all absences, please provide the closest available figure.

(a) Please describe the main data sources for absence from work at national level. How are the data collected and how is absence defined? Are the data broken down according to the length of absence? Which spells of absence are taken into consideration (e.g. three to 19 days and 20 days or more)?

(b) Please state the average overall current level of absence either in terms of % of working time lost or number of working days a year. What has been the trend over the past five years?

Absenteeism in Ireland is commonly defined as ‘days lost due to illness or causes not covered by statutory entitlement or company approval’. The main sources of data on absence in Ireland come from employer organisations, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Within the past couple of years, four surveys estimating the number of workdays lost owing to absence have been published, namely:

  • a member survey by the employer group representing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME), published in December 2007 – the survey states that eight million days are lost each year due to non-attendance at work;

  • another member survey by the SME employer group, the Small Firms Association (SFA), which was published in August 2008 – the survey estimated that 5.3 million workdays were lost in 2007;

  • the CSO Quarterly National Household Survey (CSO QNHS), which includes a special module on workplace accidents and illness (figures for 2007) – the results show that 1,745,300 days were lost in 2007 because of what were perceived to be work-related accidents or illnesses. The CSO QNHS is the most comprehensive survey on absence in Ireland, because it has national coverage, rather than being restricted to membership of a particular employer organisations such as ISME or SFA;

  • data from the Department of Social and Family Affairs Occupational Injury Benefit Claims (OIB) figures for 2007, which recorded that 502,178 workdays were lost because of work-related accidents and illnesses.

  1. the four surveys contain a lot of information on absence from work in Ireland. The CSO and OIB figures give a measure of the number of days lost and identify what types of injuries and illnesses workers suffer. The ISME and SFA figures estimate the number of days lost and the cost of absence. Both the ISME and SFA surveys offer an insight into the sectors of economic activity where days are lost. The CSO survey is a large-scale statistically robust survey and the OIB figures are the actual recorded figures for days lost, while the ISME and SFA surveys are relatively small-scale surveys of members of those organisations. The CSO survey breaks down the number of days lost into two main categories: no days lost, and absences of one to three days or four days or more.

The average absence rate of Irish workers has fallen in recent years. In 1975, the Irish Productivity Centre (IPC) estimated that the average number of lost days for each employee every year was 13 days. In recent years, most surveys suggest that the average number of days lost per employee in Ireland has dropped to eight days a year.

The scale of the problem of absence from work is particularly apparent when contrasted with the number of days lost due to industrial disputes. The CSO figures for 2007 show 6,038 days were lost due to industrial disputes. In fact, the scale of the problem may be even greater than suggested by the surveys quoted. Writing in the specialist publication Industrial Relations News (IRN) in February 2008, Dr Gerard McMahon, a lecturer in human resource (HR) management at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), estimated that as many as 14 million workdays are lost annually due to absence at a cost of almost €2 billion.

(c) Please provide a breakdown of absence by gender. What has been the trend over the past five years?

The CSO QNHS data provides a gender breakdown for absence relating to injury and illness. In 2007, the days lost due to illness amounted to 581,300 days for men and 389,900 days for women. For injury, the equivalent figures were 654,300 days for men and 110,800 days for women.

(d) Please provide a breakdown of absence by age groups (if possible, according to the following age groups: 15–29, 30–49 and 50 years). What has been the trend over the past five years?

The CSO special survey module on workplace injury and illness does not provide a breakdown of absence by age. Rather, it provides an age breakdown for the rate of illness or injury per 100 people in employment. The highest rate of injury per 100 persons in employment in 2007 was 3.8 in the 35–44 years age group. The highest rate of illness was 4.7 in the 55 years age range, followed by 4.5 in the 45–54 years age group.

(e) Please provide any available estimates for the proportion of the total volume of absence a year due to short (3-19 days’ duration) spells and long-term absence (20 days or more). Have there been any changes in the prevalence of short-term and long-term levels of absence over the past five years?

There is no precise breakdown for short-term and long-term absence as defined above.

(f) Please give the level of absence in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with fewer than 250 employees, compared withs large organisations.

The two surveys by ISME and SFA cover levels of absence in SMEs.

The ISME survey, which was published in December 2007 and based on a survey of 2,000 companies employing over 50,000 workers, found that:

  • eight million workdays are lost each year due to absenteeism;

  • the direct cost of absenteeism is €1.1 billion – this figure is based on average wage costs of €138 a day;

  • the annual average absence per employee is eight days;

  • the owner/managers surveyed believed that 60% of absence was due to feigned illness or ‘malingering’.

The ISME survey found that back-to-work interviews reduced what ISME describes as ‘malingering’ by as much as 55%. It also found that the highest incidence of absenteeism occurred in the electrical precision equipment and transport industries, where the average absence per employee was 15 days; the lowest rate was found in retail trade, at four days’ absence per employee. As the ISME survey was a survey of members, all of whom operate in the private sector, it does not cover workers in the public sector or in larger organisations.

The SFA survey, which was published in August 2008, found that:

  • 5.3 million days were lost in small businesses due to absenteeism during 2007;

  • absenteeism costs small business €793 million a year – this figure is based on average daily earnings of €149;

  • the average period of absence is eight days;

  • back pain and stress are the biggest causes of absenteeism recorded on medical certificates, while minor illnesses are the most common cause of uncertified illnesses.

The SFA survey found that absenteeism was highest in the call centre industry, at an average of 14 days’ absence, followed by metals/engineering works, at 11 days’ absence. The lowest rate of absenteeism was found in wholesale distribution and transport. Similar to the ISME survey, the SFA survey is a survey of members and does not include workers in the public sector or larger companies.

(g) Please provide the latest figures on level of absence by activity sectors.

Apart from sectoral data contained in the SME surveys outlined above, there is no nationally representative sectoral breakdown for absence along the lines of the data shown in the table below. However, the CSO special module provides the following data by sector on the number of persons absent due to work-related injuries and illness per 100 people in employment.

Number of people absent due to work-related injury or illness, per 100 people in employment, by sector
  Injury Illness
Agriculture, forestry, fishing No data 7.5
Industry 3.9 3.1
Services 2.3 3.2

Source: CSO, 2007

2. Causes of absence

(a) Please describe the main causes of absence as identified in national surveys. Are there differences according to gender, company size or sector of economic activity?

The causes of absenteeism can be quite varied. Some absences are the result of workplace accidents and/or work-related illnesses. The other reasons for absences range from what the employer body ISME describes as ‘legitimate reasons’, such as family emergencies, to what are described as ‘frivolous’ reasons, which more properly fall within the remit of the HR function.

According to the CSO QNHS results, in 2007 the greatest number of days lost was attributable to illness. Of the 2007 total, 980,200 days were lost due to illness, while 765,100 were lost due to occupational injuries.

As noted above, the CSO survey breaks down the number of days lost into two main categories: no days lost, and one to three and four days or more absences. These figures are analysed by injury and illness in the Annual Statistical Report 2006–2007 of the Health and Safety Authority (HSA). The total number of one to three and four day or more injury absence cases recorded in 2006 was 36,200. This indicates an average number of days lost of 20 per person for injuries. A similar number of illness absences were recorded (37,300 cases), which works out at an average of 26 days lost per person.

Measured on the scale of per 1,000 employees, the highest injury rates are in construction (48.9), transport, storage and communications (38.1), and hotels and restaurants (31.6). The lowest injury rate is in the education sector (9.9). The highest illness rates are in agriculture (73.9), health and social work (60.3), and public administration/defence (44.5). The lowest illness rate is in the hotels and restaurant sector (11.7).

(b) Please indicate the main occupational diseases and occupational injuries or accidents responsible for absence from work. Please identify and offer explanations for any changes that have occurred over the past five years.

The main causes of short-term absence for both manual and non-manual workers are minor illnesses. Back pain, musculoskeletal injuries and stress are also major causes of short-term absence. The main causes of long-term absences among manual workers are acute medical conditions, followed by back pain and musculoskeletal disorders, stress and mental health problems. Among non-manual workers, stress is the number one cause of long-term absence, followed by acute medical conditions, musculoskeletal disorders and back pain.

3. Presenteeism

Please refer to the definition of presenteeism: ‘being present at work while feeling ill or being unable to work at normal capacity’. What data are available on its extent?

For example, a Dutch study asked employees, ‘during the last 12 months, did it happen that you went to work, even when you thought you should report sick?’ Almost two thirds of respondents replied in the affirmative. Please report on any data available in surveys of working conditions, presenting the wording of the questions used.

There is no concrete data available in Ireland on the extent of presenteeism.

Costs and policies

4. Costs of absence

Are there estimates or studies on costs of absence from work? Please provide available information on:

a) Figures for costs of absence from work for employers. Please summarise how the data are collected, how costs are compiled (what is included in the costs and concrete data) and measured (e.g. costs of absence as a percentage of company production or as a percentage of GDP for the whole country).

The figures published by ISME and SFA estimate the cost to business of absence from work. ISME estimates these costs to be in the region of €1.1 billion annually, while SFA puts the cost at €793 million for 2007. However, as noted in the first section, some experts believe that the real cost of absence could be up to €2 billion a year.

For those companies that do calculate the cost, they are more likely to only include direct costs, such as sick pay, overtime or replacement cost, as opposed to indirect costs, such as loss of productivity or administration costs. Given that employers tend to primarily measure only direct costs when calculating absenteeism, the broader cost of absence may be substantially underestimated, since indirect costs are often excluded.

b) Figures for costs of absence from work for the social security system. Please summarise how the data are collected, how costs are compiled (what is included in the costs and concrete data) and measured (e.g. costs of absence as a percentage of social security expenditure).

In 2007, some 13,803 claims for occupational injury benefit (OIB) were counted as being valid, after vetting by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. A total of 502,178 lost workdays were recorded under the OIB scheme. The average number of workdays lost per claim was 36 days. The highest number of claims was made by road transport workers, followed by workers in the construction trades, sales assistants and checkout operators. The most common reasons for claims were injuries of the back, neck, rib or discs, followed by injuries of the hand, finger or wrist. When considering the OIB figures, it should be borne in mind that a worker has to be absent for more than three days before they can claim OIB. Therefore, the figures do not record absences of less than three days. Moreover, the OIB figures do not include the self-employed sector and certain public service sector employment.

5. National and company measures

(a) Please outline any recent measures at national level intended to reduce the costs of absence through positive policies. An example would be changed social security rules on sick pay. Are any specific actions or measures directed at long-term absence?

One national group that has for a long time been advocating positive return-to-work policies is the Workplace Safety Initiative (WSI). The group is a national-level organisation – established under Ireland’s social partnership framework – involving the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC), the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and the Irish Insurance Federation (IIF). For many years, the Workplace Safety Initiative has been promoting policies to encourage employees’ return to work. The group drew up a Workplace Safety Code, the aim of which is to encourage accident and ill-health prevention measures and, if accidents or illnesses occur, to encourage injured workers back to work. First launched in April 1998, the code was updated in 2006. However, the code is voluntary. The group’s website gives details of grants and information on supports for return to work. The Workplace Safety Initiative is a participant in a European Union programme which is concerned with the reintegration of injured workers back into the workplace.

(b) What are companies doing to reduce overall absence from work (e.g. attendance incentives or bonuses)? Are sickness prevention plans elaborated? If so, how are elected employee representatives involved in these plans (e.g. through involvement in their design and implementation, or through being informed about them)? Please illustrate with up to three examples.

When it comes to managing and reducing absence, the following numerous practical options are (voluntarily) available to employers in Ireland:

  • proactively manage the absenteeism problem;

  • accord primary responsibility for absenteeism to line management;

  • have appropriate absenteeism procedures in place and use consistently;

  • ensure ‘return-to-work’ interviews are conducted and recorded;

  • train management, supervisors and team leaders in people management and interpersonal skills;

  • avail of the services of a company doctor or occupational health professional;

  • have an effective recording system in place and use it consistently;

  • enable the recording system to review data by cause, to compare certified absence with uncertified absence, and to record by employee, employee category, department, shift, season and area;

  • set an absenteeism target – for example 3% – and an action plan(s) when this target is missed;

  • ensure the availability of an employee assistance programme;

  • have a policy of and use a ‘keep in touch’ or welfare visit system;

  • review the sick pay scheme (including self-certification system and documentation);

  • link attendance to the performance management system;

  • use the disciplinary procedure, including insertion of ‘triggers’ for usage;

  • ensure progressive HR policies and practices, for example reference checks, performance management, and that good work conditions are in place;

  • provide good leave terms, including short-term short notice arrangements;

  • consider workplace and/or work pattern adjustment facilities;

  • be open to return-to-work plans, including redeployment;

  • devise an attendance bonus (‘be in to win’ schemes);

  • provide a crèche facility;

  • implement a health education or ‘wellness at work’ programme.

Above all, a 2006 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) concluded that return-to-work interviews are rated by employers as the most effective approach to tackling short-term absence across all sectors:

‘Respondents from the private services sector most commonly identify the introduction of return-to-work interviews as a major factor in reduced absence …… (whilst) return-to-work interviews are the most commonly used approach for managing long-term absence.’

For example, the Irish Sports Council’s policy on return-to-work interviews advises that such meetings be convened:

  • as soon as possible on the employee’s return to work;

  • in a manner which affords the employee ample opportunity to outline the reason(s) for their absence;

  • as an opportunity to explore potential issues;

  • without pre-judging the employee or directly challenging the stated reasons for the absence.

Emphasising this supportive route, the Irish Sports Council also advises that it would be inappropriate to query the ‘bona fides’ of the interviewee, or to convey the impression that one does not believe that the absence was for legitimate reasons. Hence, it is advisable to use the discussion to focus on the employee’s attendance record, route(s) towards the improvement of this record and the impact of the absence on the operation of the organisation. Nevertheless, this may well include alerting the employee to what improvement in attendance is required and the likely consequences should this fail to materialise. In essence, the council’s advice is not to blame the employee for being ill or to question the validity of their absence, but rather to impress upon them that a certain level of attendance is required in order to run the organisation efficiently. However, where the employee has a pattern of uncertified absence, it might well be appropriate to advise them to consult a doctor to determine whether medical treatment or other appropriate action is necessary. If, following a medical examination, it appears that there were no good reasons (medical or other otherwise) to justify the absence, and they persist, it may be appropriate and necessary to invoke the company’s disciplinary procedure.

The absence of sick pay schemes is associated with superior attendance levels – and there is a perception among some employers that sick pay schemes are susceptible to misuse by workers. In some instances, where sick pay schemes are present, some employers have sought to reform them to reduce absence.

(c) Do companies have any specific policies directed at long-term absence? What is done to encourage the reintegration into work of people who are long-term sick? Is work redesigned to meet the needs of employees?

Some companies have specific policies directed at long-term absence, but it would seem that the majority do not. One health and safety adviser with considerable experience in managing absenteeism – Cork-based John Campbell who worked for over 20 years with the airline company Aer Lingus, where he was responsible for absenteeism control – breaks the challenge into two categories: managing short-term absence and long-term absence. In relation to long-term absence, he advises employers to have ‘a positive set procedure to encourage employees to return to work’. Employees should, he says, be given a handbook setting out the employer’s policy. Mr Campbell adds that many employers seem to be reluctant to keep in contact with their employees during periods of long-term absence. His experience is that when employees are out of work for a long time, some become nervous about returning to work, as they are often concerned about changes which have taken place. Others, he says, become set in their ways and just keep on sending in medical certificates on a weekly or monthly basis. Contact by management and colleagues can help to reduce isolation. Drawing on his experience as an accident investigator, Mr Campbell notes that many companies are ‘very lax at maintaining sick leave records’. He says companies should have a clear written policy. It should be a strict requirement that all sick leave is reported at the earliest opportunity. Employment contracts should give employers the right to have employees examined by the employer’s medical officer. One reason that Mr Campbell puts forward for keeping absence records is that they can help in cases of injury, when it comes to defending claims. Good records can help to show if there is any connection between an injury claim following an accident and previous injuries. Mr Campbell recognises that handling absence data is a sensitive issue. He advises that absence records should be treated as confidential documents, with access restricted to those directly concerned with personnel, health and safety and medical issues. Line managers should only have access to records showing periods of absence. When Mr Campbell encourages employers to adopt procedures which encourage employees to return to work, he highlights the use of return-to-work interviews.

The state postal company, An Post, is an example of an organisation that has attempted to reduce long-term absence levels. Back in 2007, the company stated that a number of initiatives were being implemented to reduce levels of absence by a full 2% by the end of 2007, and to a more normal and acceptable level during 2008. Long-term sickness absences – that is, absence of over 28 days’ duration – is monitored on a weekly basis and medically fit employees are assisted by the company’s occupational health advisors to return to work as soon as possible. Frequent sickness absences are also monitored and action, including disciplinary measures, is taken to reduce them.

6. Well-being at work

(a) Is the concept of well-being at work a feature of debates in your country? Which are the most relevant initiatives in this area, for example in relation to redesigning work to encourage attendance or to promote the health of employees? What are the objectives of such initiatives? How far do they aim to reduce absence levels, and is there any evidence of any reductions? Please provide up to three examples.

The topic of well-being at work has become increasingly prominent in Ireland. The HSA has adopted a health and well-being strategy, which has three strands: the creation of a culture that promotes health and well-being; the prevention of injury and illness; and, where workers are absent, rehabilitation into the workplace. The HSA’s strategy recommends: raising awareness of prevention measures; emphasising the provision of health surveillance; and the establishment of an infrastructure to monitor and enforce compliance with legislation. The HSA’s health and well-being strategy includes a number of recommendations on actions to encourage return to work, including access to occupational health services and the development of guidelines for people with disabilities.

In 2007, Ireland’s largest employer body, IBEC, launched a new initiative in the workplace to help employees make more informed choices about their lifestyle habits at a time of increasing concern about eating habits and lack of exercise in the general population. IBEC’s Nutrition and Health Foundation (NHF) is behind the campaign, known as the ‘Workplace Well-being Initiative’, which has been developed by leading experts in nutrition and physical activity. The programme provides information and advice about healthy eating and exercise, is free of charge and ‘requires only minimal resources to disseminate in-company’. The campaign aims to help employees make smarter choices. Each information pack contains:

  • six different A3 posters for display on notice boards and in communal areas;

  • an individual nutrition and exercise planner for each member of staff;

  • a desk calendar for each manual and toolkit for management;

  • a comprehensive manual and toolkit for management;

  • access to NHF’s well-being network, which provides regular mail-outs, advice and events relating to health promotion in the workplace.

At individual company level, some companies are more advanced than others in relation to well-being at work policies. For example, the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has comprehensive employee well-being at work policies. GSK provides lifestyle benefits, which it says are designed to help employees balance home and work lives, and to contribute to health and well-being. Rather than a ‘one size fits all’ package, it provides flexible arrangements in terms of healthcare and annual leave, employee assistance programmes and monthly ‘well-being days’.

(b) To what extent do policies on the management of absence and on well-being engage elected employee representatives? At what stage are representatives involved?

This very much depends on what is happening in individual organisations. Some employee representatives would be involved in negotiating changes to sick pay schemes – for instance, where employers are concerned that such schemes encourage absence.

(c) Please summarise the policy position of social partners, and if relevant other representative bodies, on the management of absence, attendance and well-being at work.

Both IBEC and ICTU place an important emphasis on improving absence and well-being at work. For instance, IBEC launched the aforementioned well-being policy in 2007. Furthermore, in 2004, IBEC produced a report on absence entitled ‘Employee absenteeism – A guide to managing absence’. ICTU has disputed that Irish industry suffers from a serious absenteeism problem, referring to EU reports suggesting that Irish workers take the second lowest number of sick days in the EU. Trade union policy emphasis is oriented towards promoting a healthy work environment, for example by reducing stress levels.


Please provide an assessment of national debates about absence. What is the balance between controlling high levels of absence, on the one hand, and promoting health and a positive work environment, on the other?

Employers in Ireland have expressed concern about high levels of absence, and interest from individual employers has grown in terms of devising policies to control absence. The scale of the problem of absenteeism from work is particularly apparent when contrasted with the number of days lost due to industrial disputes. Nevertheless, trade unions have pointed out that, in comparative terms, Ireland fares relatively well in any absence league table compared with most other EU countries. There are signs that Ireland’s current economic recession, and growing job insecurity, have had an impact on reducing absence from. Trade unions and more progressive employers would argue that the best way to reduce absence from work is to promote healthy and high quality working environments and to reduce stress and work pressure.

Tony Dobbins, NUI Galway

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