Two thirds of absentees simply sick of work

Oct 11 2007 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Two-thirds of U.S. workers who call in sick at the last minute do so not because they are ill but because they feel entitled to a day off, don't want to use up precious holiday or have a family or personal commitment they don't want to admit to.

And the bill from such unscheduled disappearances is steep, with businesses estimating such absence costs them $760,000 per year just in direct payroll costs, before issues such as lower productivity, lost revenue and the effects of poor morale are taken into account.

A study by HR and employment law firm CCH, part of Wolters Kluwer/Croner, found that personal illness accounted for just over a third of unscheduled absences.

The rest was down to a myriad of other reasons, including family issues, personal needs, an "entitlement mentality" and stress or burnout.

"Most people today are juggling the demands of busy personal and professional lives, and are trying to do their very best in both places," said CCH employment law analyst Pamela Wolf.

"Organisations need to stop the tug of war with people for their time, and become a partner to employees to help them, and the business overall, be more successful," she added.

What makes it all the more galling for employers is that most workers are pretty blatant about how and when they take such time off.

More than two-thirds of employers reported a discernable pattern in unscheduled absences, with the most noticeable pattern being workers calling in sick on Mondays and Fridays, followed by holidays such as Christmas or the Fourth of July, and during flu and hay fever seasons.

One way to manage this problem, argued CCH, was to offer an appropriate range of work-life and absence control programmes.

These could include telecommuting, compressed working week, leave for school functions and flu shot programmes.

Employee assistance plans, wellness programmes and alternative working arrangement programmes could also be effective.

"The fact that two of the programmes that companies rated as most effective – telecommuting and compressed work week – are not also among the most used signals the need for employers to step back and assess if they have the right programs in place for their people," stressed Wolf.

U.S. companies on average offered nine work-life programmes, down from 11 in 2006, she added.

"Some organisations view work-life programmes as a soft benefit that can be taken away without much pain, but this short-term view can have negative, far-reaching consequences – on unscheduled absences, employee morale, recruiting and retention and the bottom line," warned Wolf.

"Employers need to fully consider the real costs of eliminating these programmes before taking action," she added.

Employers also reported using an average of five absence control programmes, down from six in 2006, with disciplinary action remaining the single most used absence control programme.

The other leading absence control programmes were yearly review, verification of illness, paid leave banks and no fault programmes.

But Wolf warned such relying on disciplinary action could backfire. "It can drive the wrong behaviour if it encourages employees to call in sick with a made-up excuse or to come to work sick – a costly problem known as presenteeism," she said.

Unsurprisingly, the more unhappy employees were and the lower the morale, the more reasons they found not to come to work, the survey found.

"The first step to implementing an effective absence management programme is to have a good understanding of your employee population and their needs," stressed Wolf.

Thirty-eight per cent of employers reported that presenteeism was a problem in their organisations, and these employers said nearly nine out of 10 sick employees who showed up to work were suffering from short-term illnesses such as cold and flu, which could be easily spread.

The top reasons employees showed up for work even though they were sick were "too much work/deadlines", followed by "no one available to cover" and the desire not to use up vacation time.

But half also said they showed up for work sick because they feared being disciplined – indicating that organisations with traditional sick-day polices enforced by disciplinary action could be making presenteeism worse, warned CCH.