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Work absences in 2011

By Maria Dabboussy and Sharanjit Uppal

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There are many kinds of absence. Some, like 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, for instance 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 organizations 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 source and definitions).

Recent trends—2001 to 2011

In the first half of the 2000s, both the incidence and the number of days lost for personal reasons (illness or disability, and personal or family responsibilities) trended upwards. In the latter half of the 2000s, the rates were flat or declined slightly. However, absence rates were somewhat higher in 2011 than in 2001 (Chart A).

In an average week in 2001, excluding women on maternity leave,1 7.0% of all full-time employees holding one job were absent from work for all or part of the week for personal reasons. By 2011, the figure had risen to 8.1% (913,000) (Table 1). Total work time missed also rose, from 3.4% of the scheduled week in 2001 to 3.7% in 2011; this was up slightly from 2010. Extrapolated over the full year, work time lost for personal reasons increased from the equivalent of 8.5 days per worker in 2001 to 9.3 days in 2011.

Variations in absence rates in 2011

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 and work schedules); adequacy and affordability of community facilities like 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 was gained by examining personal absences in 2011 by selected demographic characteristics, occupation and industry, and other attributes like union and job status.

Demographic differences

In 2011, excluding women on maternity leave, an estimated 8.1% of full-time employees missed some work each week for personal reasons: 5.9% for own illness or disability and 2.2% for personal or family responsibilities (Table 2). As a result, full-time employees lost 3.7% of their work time each week.

On average, each full-time employee lost 9.3 days in 2011 for personal reasons (7.7 for own illness or disability plus 1.6 for personal or family demands). This amounted to an estimated 105 million work days for all full-time employees. Men lost fewer days than women—7.7 (6.4 for illness or disability plus 1.4 for personal or family demands) versus 11.4 (9.4 plus 2.0).

The presence of preschool-age children exerts a strong influence on work absences for personal or family responsibilities. In 2011, full-time employees in families with at least one preschool-age child lost an average of 3.0 days, compared with only 1.4 for those in families without children.

Work days missed because of illness or disability tended to rise with age, from an average of 5.1 days for youth (15 to 19) to 11.5 for full-time employees age 55 to 64.

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 3). Contributing factors include the nature and demands of the job, the male–female composition of the workforce, and 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 (12.9 days) in 2011 for personal reasons than their private-sector counterparts (8.2 days).

At the major (2-digit) industry level, the most work days were missed by employees in health care and social assistance (14.0 days), public administration (12.8) and transportation and warehousing (12.3).

The lowest averages were recorded by full-time workers in professional, scientific and technical services (5.8), other services (except public administration) (6.5) and primary industries (7.2).


Contributing factors for absence rates by occupation are similar to those for industry (Table 4). Again, as by major industry, differences arose mainly from time lost due to illness or disability.

The most days lost in 2011 were recorded for full-time employees in health occupations (14.1) and occupations unique to production (10.8). Workers in natural and applied sciences (5.8), management (6.8), and culture and recreation (7.3) 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 work days on average in 2011 for personal reasons than their non-unionized counterparts (13.2 versus 7.5) (Table 5).

Workers with permanent jobs (more likely to be unionized) lost more work days (9.6) than those whose jobs were not permanent (7.0).

Days lost tended to rise with workplace size, increasing from a low of 7.5 in workplaces with less than 20 employees (firms more likely to have low union rates) to 11.1 in workplaces with more than 500 employees (firms likely to have high union rates).

Days lost tended to rise with job tenure, with almost all of the differences arising from illness and disability. Employees with tenure of up to 1 year lost 6.2 days, while those with over 14 years lost 11.7 days (the latter group was also likely older).

Province and Census Metropolitan Area (CMA)

Work-absence levels differed by geographic area (Table 6), with most of the variation again arising from illness or disability.

Full-time employees in Saskatchewan (11.0) lost the most work time in 2011, followed by those in New Brunswick, Quebec, and Nova Scotia (10.8 each). Those in Alberta (7.9) and Ontario (8.3) lost the least.

Among the census metropolitan areas, Gatineau (11.7), Victoria (11.1) and Montréal (10.8) lost the most days per full-time worker. Guelph (6.8), Toronto (7.1) and Calgary (7.1) lost the least.

Data source and definitions

The data in this article are annual averages from the Labour Force Survey (LFS). They refer to full-time employees holding only one job. Part-time, self-employed and unpaid family workers are excluded because they generally have more opportunities to arrange their work schedules around personal or family responsibilities. Multiple job holders, too, are excluded because it is not possible, using LFS data, to allocate time lost, or the reason for it, to specific jobs. Women on maternity leave are also excluded. However, men using paid paternity (in Quebec only) and parental leave are included in the calculation until 2006.

Some human resource practitioners exclude persons on long-term illness or disability leave (exceeding one year) from their attendance management statistics. Such persons are, however, included in Statistics Canada’s work absence estimates if they count themselves as employed (that is, they continue to receive partial or full pay from their employers). In 2011, the number of employed persons on such long-term illness or disability leave averaged 33,200 in a typical week. Their exclusion would have reduced the weekly work absence incidence for illness or disability from 5.9% to 5.6%, the inactivity rate from 3.1% to 2.8%, and days lost per worker that year from 7.7 to 7.0.

Personal reasons for absence are split into two categories: ‘own illness or disability’ and ‘personal or family responsibilities’ (caring for own children, caring for elder relative, and other personal or family responsibilities). Absences for these two types of reasons represented 28% of all time lost by full-time paid workers each week in 2011. Vacations, which accounted for 40% of total time away from work, are not counted in this article, nor are statutory holidays, which represented 12%. Maternity/parental leave represented 12% and other reasons, 7%.

The incidence of absence is the percentage of full-time paid workers reporting some absence in the reference week. In calculating incidence, the length of work absence—whether one hour, one day, or one full week—is irrelevant.

The inactivity rate shows hours lost as a proportion of the usual weekly hours of full-time paid workers. It takes both the incidence and length of absence in the reference week into account.

Days lost per worker are calculated by multiplying the inactivity rate by the estimated number of working days in the year (250).

Reasons for work absences in the LFS

The LFS sets out the following reasons for being away from work:

  • own illness or disability
  • caring for own children
  • caring for elder relative (60 years or over)
  • maternity leave (women only)
  • parental leave (men only and starting in 2007)
  • other personal or family responsibilities
  • vacation
  • labour dispute (strike or lockout)
  • temporary layoff due to business conditions
  • holiday (legal or religious)
  • weather
  • job started or ended during week
  • working a short time (for example, because of material shortages, or plant maintenance or repair)
  • other

Personal or family responsibilities include caring for own children, caring for elder relative, and other personal or family responsibilities.


Exclusion of maternity leave started in 1997 with the introduction of the revised Labour Force Survey questionnaire.


Shields, Margot. 2004. “Stress, health and the benefit of social support.” Health Reports. Vol. 15, no. 1. January. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-003-X. p. 9-38. (accessed March 27, 2012).

Williams, Cara. 2003. “Sources of workplace stress.” Perspectives on Labour and Income. Vol. 4, no. 6. June. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 75-001-XIE. (accessed March 27, 2012).


Maria Dabboussy and Sharanjit Uppal are with the Labour Statistics Division. Maria Dabboussy can be reached at 613-951-8659. Sharanjit Uppal can be reached at 613-951-3887 or both at