You might be surprised about how many different types of workplace absence there are. In our other guides, we've mentioned the fact that there's not many universal agreements for things like maternity and paternity leave - as many policies are decided by companies themselves.
But it's useful to know the different ways in which workers can be away from the office and unavailable for work, especially for those involved in workforce planning or project management.
There are three main forms of work absence:
- Authorised, planned for (ie. holidays and parental leave)
- Unplanned but legitimate (ie. sickness)
- Unauthorised (ie. going AWOL, or lateness)
So here’s our short guide to these different forms of absence from work.
What are the different types of absence in an office?
One of the most frequent types of absenteeism. There are various ways of dealing with sickness in the office, but it must be seen as an inevitability, to some extent, in any business.
This is where someone is considered unfit to work, either by themselves or their doctor, because of illness or injury. It’s usually unplanned, but can be planned if they need to be away for a medical procedure or surgery.
Some companies separate sickness from long-term sickness - which is generally when someone’s off sick for more than 4 weeks and they don’t know when they'll return. In that case, for planning the months ahead, you’d assume the employee won’t be working at all.
Also known as vacation or annual leave, this is the planned absence of a certain number of days per year for employees to do whatever they wish - usually travelling or relaxing.
It’s mostly planned-for quite a while in advance, but under certain circumstances a manager might grant immediate leave if the current workload allows for it. Each company will have their own policy for this.
The amount of annual leave each employee can take usually depends on a few things - their length of service, what’s in their contract, what they negotiated upon starting the job. Leave days accrue as the year goes on (eg. 2 days per month plus bank holidays), and if the worker quits their job before using them all, they can be paid a salary equivalent to the unused days.
In the UK there is a minimum holiday entitlement for all workers set out in law.
Some companies have an unlimited allowance for holidays, as a perk to their compensation package. Whether this is a good idea or not is a matter of opinion, and you’ll often see it at progressive tech companies and startups.
Bereavement / Compassionate
This is when an employee unexpectedly suffers something upsetting, such as the death or serious illness of a loved one. It could also be used if they are the victim of a crime or other traumatic event. The policies and ethics around compassionate leave are a little complex - check out our what is compassionate leave article for some more in-depth guidance, including how to prepare for it.
Many of us live in areas with unpredictable bus services, or trains that regularly break down. Weather can contribute to this, too: heavy snow, especially in rural areas, can be unsafe to travel in.
If someone is unable to work from home, and these issues are serious enough to stop them safely getting to and from the office in a reasonable amount of time, leave maybe can be granted - paid or unpaid. If it just results in lateness, then the company lateness policy will have to cover it.
Maternity, Paternity and Adoption Leave
These are the names for planned time off work to welcome new children into a family after they’re born, and to attend antenatal appointments. Usually, new mothers get a long stretch of time off and dads take only a few weeks. Things are slowly changing - parental leave can be shared and some couples choose to take a more equal split.
As for allowances, they depend on the employees’ length of service with the company. It can get a bit complicated, so have a look at our guides to Maternity and Paternity Leave for more about entitlements and other aspects of parental leave.
Witness at court / Jury duty
This is when someone is called up to be a juror in a legal case. It means they might be off work for a number of weeks, and they’re not allowed to skip it unless there's exceptional circumstances. Employers have no legal obligation to pay for this time off, as the person should be paid directly by the courts instead. The compensation amounts are quite low, but often the duty is only for half-days, so they might be able to do afternoons in work instead.
Interestingly, according to the Ministry of Justice, there is around a 35% chance of someone in England or Wales being summoned for jury service in their lifetime. If you’re one of the (un)lucky few, there’s more detailed info available at Gov.uk.
This covers leave taken for routine medical appointments regarding physical, mental and dental health. There’s no statutory right to take leave for this kind of appointment, but companies might have a policy laid out in their employee contracts. So it might be paid or unpaid, and will likely have a maximum number of days per year they can take.
Training / Disciplinary
Training leave could include mandatory training on new procedures or business changes, on or off-site, often taken in groups - this would be paid as a business expense. It could also be individual training - often paid for by the company upon request of the worker as part of their CPD (continuous professional development), as long as it’s relevant and useful for the company as well as the worker.
Those aged 16 or 17 are entitled to take time off work to train for a qualification.
Leave for disciplinary procedures exists for serious cases - when the worker has to be suspended and away from the workplace while investigations are made into their conduct. This leave is paid.
Career break / sabbatical
A sabbatical is a long, voluntary break from work, usually unpaid. Workers take these to rest, travel, learn new skills, volunteer, or take part in other activities that enhance their career and life.
They’re taken with permission from their employer and planned a fair bit in advance (especially as those on sabbatical will be living off savings - they aren’t allowed to get another job). They can be anywhere from a few weeks to a year. We’ve written the why, what and how of sabbaticals and career breaks in a couple of our blog posts.
Unpaid leave / Exceptional circumstances
For just about everything else, this is the category. Depending on company policy there will usually be a way to deal with reasons for leave that don’t fit anywhere else. When life brings a domestic crisis - a house burglary, fire or flood for example - this might be used to provide some recovery time.
AWOL / Lateness
AWOL (Absent without leave) is when a worker simply doesn't turn up for their shift. It's a disciplinary matter and companies will need to decide themselves how to deal with this, usually from policies outlined in employee contracts.
It's the same with lateness - some companies say any more than 15 minutes of lateness will be counted, others are more lenient. Some even say that arriving one minute after the shift starts counts, if you work for that type of company then we feel for you.