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Work Absence Rates



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Work absences

There are many kinds of absence. Some, such as annual vacation, are generally considered beneficial for both the organization and the employee. Since they are usually scheduled, their effect on the organization can be fairly easily absorbed; the same can be said of statutory holidays. Other absences, such as those caused by illness and family-related demands, are generally unavoidable, as are those due to inclement weather.

Absenteeism, a term used to refer to absences that are avoidable, habitual and unscheduled, is a source of irritation to employers and co-workers. Such absences are disruptive to proper work scheduling and output, and costly to an organization and the economy as a whole. Although absenteeism is widely acknowledged to be a problem, it is not easy to quantify. The dividing line between avoidable and unavoidable is difficult to draw, and absenteeism generally masquerades as legitimate absence. The Labour Force Survey (LFS) can provide measures of time lost because of personal reasons—that is, illness or disability, and personal or family responsibilities. However, within these categories, it is impossible to determine if an absence is avoidable or unscheduled. LFS data on absences for personal reasons can, however, be analyzed to identify patterns or trends that indicate the effect of absenteeism (see Data quality, concepts and methodology — Data Source ).

Recent trends—1997 to 2007

Since 2000, both the incidence and the number of days lost for personal reasons (illness or disability, and personal or family responsibilities) have shown a rising trend (chart 1). Several factors have contributed: notably, an aging workforce; the growing share of women in the workforce, especially those with young children; high worker stress; 1  and more generous sick- and family-related leave benefits.

In an average week in 1997, excluding women on maternity leave, about 5.5% (484,000) of all full-time employees holding one job were absent from work for all or part of the week for personal reasons. 2  By 2007, the figure had risen to 8.8% (969,000) (table 6-1). Total work time missed also rose steadily, from 3.0% of the scheduled week in 1997 to 4.1% in 2007. Extrapolated over the full year, work time lost for personal reasons increased from the equivalent of 7.4 days per worker in 1997 to 10.2 days in 2007.

Variations in absence rates in 2007

Absence for personal reasons differs among various worker groups. Several factors are responsible, principally working conditions (physical environment, degree of job stress, employer-employee relations, collective agreement provisions, work schedules); adequacy and affordability of community facilities such as child-care centres and public transportation; family circumstances, especially the presence of preschool children or other dependent family members; and physical health of the worker, a factor closely related to age. Measuring the effects of these and other contributing factors is not easy since many are not captured by the LFS. However, some insight is gained by examining personal absences in 2007 by selected demographic characteristics, occupation and industry, and other attributes such as union and job status.

Demographic differences

In 2007, excluding women on maternity leave, an estimated 8.8% of full-time employees missed some work each week for personal reasons: 6.2% for own illness or disability, and 2.5% for personal or family responsibilities (table 6-1). As a result, full-time employees lost about 4.1% of their work time each week.

On average, each full-time employee lost 10.2 days in 2007 for personal reasons (8.1 for own illness or disability plus 2.1 for personal or family demands). This amounted to an estimated 113 million workdays for all full-time employees. Men lost fewer days than women—8.8 (6.7 for illness or disability plus 2.1 for personal or family demands) versus 12.0 (9.9 plus 2.1).

The presence of preschool-aged children exerts a strong influence on work absences for personal or family responsibilities. In 2007, full-time employees in families with at least one preschool-aged child lost an average of 5.8 days, compared with only 1.6 for those in families without children (table 1-3).

The growing prevalence of family-leave entitlements in the workplace, the extension of Employment Insurance parental benefits, 3  and the greater involvement of fathers in child care appear to have eliminated the difference between the sexes with respect to personal and family-related absences (Marshall 2003; Marshall 2008, forthcoming). In 1997, women with preschool-aged children and working full time lost 4.1 days for such reasons, compared with 1.8 days for men in similar circumstances. By 2006, the gap had narrowed considerably (6.2 days for women versus 5.4 for men), and in 2007, it actually reversed (6.3 days for men versus 4.8 for women).

Workdays missed because of illness or disability tended to rise with age, from an average of 5.9 days for youth (15 to 19) to 11.4 for full-time employees aged 55 to 64 (table 1-1).

Industry and sector

Work absence rates differ by sector (public or private) and industry, with almost all of the difference arising from illness and disability absences (table 2-1). Contributing factors include the nature and demands of the job, the male–female composition of the workforce, and the union density—the last being a strong determinant of the presence of paid sick or family leave.

Full-time employees in the public sector (more likely unionized or female) lost more work time in 2007 for personal reasons (12.8 days, compared with 13.0 in 2006) than their private-sector counterparts (9.5 days, unchanged from 2006).

At the major (2-digit) industry level, the most workdays were missed by employees in health care and social assistance (14.3 days), transportation and warehousing (12.2), and public administration (12.2).

The lowest averages were recorded by full-time workers in professional, scientific and technical services (6.6 days). Those in accommodation and food services (8.1), primary industries other than agriculture (8.5), and finance, insurance, real estate and leasing (8.9) also missed fewer workdays.


Contributing factors for absence rates by occupation are similar to those for industry (table 3-1). Again, as by major industry, differences arise mainly from time lost due to illness or disability.

The most days lost in 2007 were recorded for full-time employees in health occupations (15.6), and occupations unique to production (12.8). Workers in management (6.4), and in culture and recreation (6.6) recorded the fewest days lost.

Union coverage, job status, workplace size and job tenure

Full-time workers who belonged to unions or were covered by collective agreements missed more workdays on average in 2007 for personal reasons than their non-unionized counterparts (14.0 versus 8.4) (table 1-6).

Workers with permanent jobs (more likely to be unionized) lost more workdays (10.4) than those whose jobs were not permanent (8.3).

Days lost tended to rise with workplace size, increasing from a low of 8.8 in workplaces with fewer than 20 employees (firms more likely to have low union rates) to 11.8 in workplaces with more than 500 employees (firms likely to have high union rates) (table 1-4).

Days lost tended to rise with job tenure, with almost all the differences arising from illness and disability (table 1-5). Employees with tenure of up to one year lost 7.8 days, while those with over 14 years lost 12.2 days (the latter group were also likely older).

Province and CMA

Work absence levels differed by geographic area (table 1-7), with most of the variation again arising from illness or disability.

Full-time employees in Nova Scotia (12.0) and Quebec (12.0) lost the most work time in 2007. Those in Alberta (9.0) and Ontario (9.3) lost the least.

Among the census metropolitan areas, Thunder Bay (14.6), Gatineau (13.3) and Saguenay (12.0) lost the most days per full-time worker (table 1-8). Calgary (8.1), Kitchener (8.3) and Toronto (8.4) had the least.


Marshall, Katherine. 2003. “Benefiting from extended parental leave”. Perspectives on Labour and Income. Vol. 4, no. 3. March. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 75-001-XIE.

Marshall, Katherine. 2008. “Fathers’ use of parental leave”. Perspectives on Labour and Income. Vol. 9, no. 6. June (forthcoming). Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 75-001-XIE.

Chart 1 The incidence of work absences due to personal reasons and the resulting days lost