Sick leave is an inherent part of Australian employees’ workplace entitlements, unlike many states in the U.S. which still don’t have mandatory paid sick leave. But we all know a person who takes it too far, who takes every second of paid time off that they can, simply because it exists. Hopefully that person is not your employee, but unfortunately absenteeism is part of the greater issue of the entitlement culture which pervades the Australian workforce, also known as the “sickie culture”.

What’s the Issue?

It is estimated that absenteeism costs Australia over $32.5 billion per year. Although this is less than half of the cost to the U.S., as we have less than a thirteenth of their population, it’s really not much to boast about. Absenteeism incurs significant expense in a number of ways, from the paid leave itself to the cost of covering their absence through the use of temporary staff or paying overtime to existing workers, decreased productivity and impacts on staff morale.

What is Absenteeism?

Full-time employees are entitled to 10 days of paid personal leave per year, which can be used for any instance where they are genuinely unfit for work because of an illness or injury. It accumulates from year to year, but if an employee ever exhausts their entitlement to paid sick leave, they may proceed to take unpaid leave or annual leave by agreement with the employer.

Absenteeism goes beyond a few stomach bugs and flu per year, and can be defined as a “habitual pattern of absence”. It includes all employee absences which are unusual or excessive. A few examples of absenteeism include:

  • large numbers of sick days per year
  • systematic pattern of absence (ie one day every week)
  • frequently leaving work early or arriving late
  • taking excessively long breaks

Causes of Absenteeism

There are a number of potential causes of employee absenteeism, and most fall within one of two categories: either the employee seeks to avoid a problem at work such as bullying or heavy workloads by “chucking a sickie”, or the problem causes genuine illness to the individual and prevents them from working. Other employees may take days off to meet alternative responsibilities, such as to care for children or elderly family members, or because they are job hunting.

Culture of Entitlement

One of the most concerning causes of absenteeism is the entitlement culture, whereby employees see their 10 days per year as a guaranteed entitlement rather than a just-in-case fall-back. Paid sick leave is meant to keep genuinely unwell employees away from the workplace to avoid contagion and prevent exacerbation of the injury or illness, as it is likely that without a paid leave entitlement, some employees would attend work while sick to avoid the financial blow of a day without pay.

But there are individuals out there who exploit this. Employees who take their sick leave as soon as it accrues just because it is there, or who give notice of their resignation and then proceed to work it out through paid sick leave because they know they’ll lose it otherwise. This culture of entitlement is very hard to dislodge and may be systemic in many businesses.


The first step to addressing it is to identify the causes of absenteeism in your workplace. Is it a lack of engagement or motivation causing your employees to prefer to stay at home than attend work? If so, consider solutions for revitalising the workplace – can you implement an incentive system to reward performance? What about setting up social or sporting events to reconnect your employees with their colleagues and the workplace culture? If it’s stress resulting from heavy workloads, think about how you can reduce the strain and encourage stressed employees to approach you before it overwhelms them. If it’s carer responsibilities, can you offer flexible working arrangements so parents can meet both sets of obligations?

If you identify the cause as the entitlement culture, it is important that you eliminate it as soon as possible. Implement clear policies that outline your expectations on each employee, including guidelines for when they should and should not attend work, and when they need to provide medical evidence of their unfitness for work. Hold team meetings to emphasise the importance of commitment and to demonstrate how absenteeism crumbles the morale of the other employees who obligingly turn up to work every day.

For more information on employee absenteeism and what this means for you, clients should contact the HR Assured team. If you’d like more information about the benefits of becoming an HR Assured client contact us today for an informal chat.