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Sickies and lateness tripled in January: What’s behind the absences?

By Nick Wilson | |6 minute read

Identifying the causes of surges in sick leave is sometimes easy, sometimes impossible. As sick leave explodes this month, experts will be left scrambling.

Year on year, time lost to sick leave this January has tripled. Lateness has also tripled this month, while annual leave requests more than doubled year on year, said BrightHR.

Why do they call it Black Friday? According to personal finance specialist Taylor Blackburn, it’s that the consequent rise in employee absences made it a “dark day for owners”. Armchair history aside, it’s true that employee absences can cost business owners dearly.


In Australia, employee absenteeism – which includes but is not limited to sick leave – costs the economy around $33 billion in lost productivity each year. Indeed, Australians are considered among the worst offenders when it comes to taking sick leave.

Let’s explore what contributes to rises or dips in sick leave, how it affects businesses, and how to tackle the scourge.

What’s behind the surge?

Knowing what’s behind rises or falls in sick leave is largely a guessing game. Even the Australia Bureau of Statistics cautions against drawing conclusions from its data. That said, some theories are more plausible than others, depending on external stressors.

Over the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, sick leave surged across the country. Following the initial peak around March of 2020, sick leave plummeted by 37 per cent in April to well below the year-on-year average.

Though the data is not clear on this point, many think the drop had to do with more Australians working from home. The thinking goes that, when working from home, people are less inclined to take sick leave.

“There’s less reason to take a sickie to get away and do things because, well, you can’t,” said University of Adelaide Professor Andrew Stewart.

Plausible but not conclusive.

Understanding the causes of increased absences is about more than giving your two cents.

“When it comes to lateness and sickness, recognising the reasons behind an increase can help employers put the right measures in place to protect both the business and their teams,” said Mollie Eckersley, BrightHR operations manager ANZ.

It can also mean that businesses are better equipped to mitigate exacerbating circumstances to reduce future absences.

A 2020 study concurred that sick leave is notoriously difficult to predict. Its causes are hardly ever clear and encompass a range of environmental and individual factors – attracting speculation from economists, psychologists, health and social experts. The study did agree, though, that a better understanding of the contributing factors could “positively influence decision making to improve worker quality of life and to reduce consequently costs for society”.

While the causes of this month’s surge in sickies are similarly opaque, doubtless, some will point to the return-to-work mandates increasingly favoured by Australian employers. Being the middle of the summer month, January has historically seen lower rates of sick leave. The surge this year resembles a similar January surge in 2022.

A data collection issue?

The causes are unclear, but some believe that business data can help make sense of seasonal variation in sick leave.

“Software can help you identify patterns easily. For example, if gloomy weather leads to an increase in days off, there’s a possibility that seasonal affective disorder is to blame or that a team member’s symptoms worsen in the cold,” explained Ms Eckersley. “In cases like this, offering wellbeing support and resources can boost staff morale and bring down absence rates.”

That said, it’s important to note that there is a time and place for absences. From taking a mental health day to simply getting on top of piling errands, the odd day off can help in maintaining a healthy work/life balance.

“For some organisations, the occasional sickie is not a problem,” said Professor Stewart. “It may actually be a positive benefit insofar as people feeling more committed to the organisation [if they think they] can take the time off when they want.”


Absence management

Absence management is a strategy used by employers to minimise employee absenteeism, prevent worker disturbance, and increase employee productivity. It entails establishing a balance between providing assistance to workers absent from their jobs due to illness, accidents, or other unanticipated events and penalizing those whose absences are dubious or excessive.

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson is a journalist with HR Leader. With a background in environmental law and communications consultancy, Nick has a passion for language and fact-driven storytelling.