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Are schools and districts causing employee absences?

Employee Absences

Teachers and other educational employees often have to be absent — for illness, jury duty or any number of personal reasons. But do you know how often employees are pulled out of their work for absences driven by your school or district?

These “professionally-related absences” are often overlooked in discussions around employee absences, and yet they are significant and unique for several reasons:

  • They impact multiple departments at the district and school level
  • They can usually be planned in advance (but often are not communicated in advance!)
  • They’re costly, accounting for nearly 1 in 5 of all absences

So how often are employees pulled out of the classroom or other work for professional reasons? Are these absences usually filled with a qualified substitute? Are teams working together to minimize the impact on instructional time?

To get the answers to these questions and more, we looked at a recent report by the Frontline Research and Learning Institute, representing data from more than 8,500 educational organizations.

Here are a few of the key findings.

Absence Causes: Why Are Employees Out?

We looked at employee absences from July 2012 through June 2015. Here are the top reasons why employees were absent:

teacher absence reasons over a three-year period graph

Not surprisingly, illness is at the top of the list, accounting for nearly half of all absences, followed by personal time off. But don’t miss the next two — both are professionally-related absences.

If you total all of the professionally-related absences, they account for 19% — nearly 1 in 5 — of all absences. Of those, more than half are specifically for professional development.

one in 5 absenses

Those professional absences – more than 16 million over the last three years – are also much more likely to be taken by employees in positions requiring a substitute to cover their absences.

Fill Rates: Are Absences Getting Filled?

The report showed that over a three-year period, fill rates (the ability to find a substitute) have steadily declined for all types of absences.

average fill rate by absence type graph

Many districts attribute this decline to a substitute shortage. But another important factor in fill rates is absence lead time — how far in advance the absence is entered before the start time.

Surprisingly, nearly a third of professional absences are reported within four days of the absence. More than half are reported less than 10 days in advance.

lead time absences

The data shows that shorter notice (and less time to find a substitute for the absence) directly correlates to lower fill rates.

So why aren’t these absences – most of which are probably known well in advance – reported earlier? Are district teams aware of the issues that short notice can cause, and are they working together to prevent it?

Our survey results said: not so much.

A Difference in Perception

In our survey of nearly 700 districts, we asked district leaders to estimate the percentage of total absences that were for professional reasons. They weren’t far off in their estimates, but what was interesting was how different roles responded.

Curriculum & Instruction and Superintendents: estimated professionally-related absences to be relatively infrequent

Human Resources and Business/Finance: estimated professionally-related absences to be relatively frequent

estimated incidence of professionally related absences graph

Their suggested approaches for dealing with these absences were different, too:

Curriculum & Instruction and Superintendents: thought current professional absence levels should be maintained or increased

Human Resources and Business/Finance: thought current professional absence levels should be decreased

A Lack of Collaboration

Clearly, there is a disconnect in perception. Unfortunately, there is also a disconnect when it comes to collaboration on managing professionally-related absences.

In fact, 40% of respondents said collaboration is rare or non-existent between the Human Resources and Curriculum & Instruction teams around this important employee issue.

Collaboration Between Human Resources and Instructional Departments

extent of collaboration versus percent of survey responses graph
In keeping with the other results, Human Resources personnel perceived even less collaboration than their counterparts in Curriculum & Instruction.

It seems that the two departments most involved in managing professional absences are not talking to each other. When that disconnect happens, what are the impacts?

  • Pressure on principals to fill last-minute absences
  • Frustration for employees not driving their own professional development activities
  • Lost instructional time for students when the teacher is absent

Additional Resources

Strategies for Collaborating on Professionally Related Absences

Get the white paper at FrontlineEducation.com  


Ali Wert

Allison (Ali) Wert is the Content Marketing Manager of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She has been writing about education topics for nearly 10 years and specializes in best practices for K-12 strategic human capital management. Under her leadership, the team at Frontline was recognized as the Winner of CMA's 2017 Project of the Year and Best Content Marketing Program. Ali also helps to manage marketing for the Frontline Research & Learning Institute and The Line.