Survey: Two-thirds who call in sick aren't really ill

A new survey suggests that U.S. workers may need more flexible work arrangements, as they are using their sick time to handle family emergencies or personal issues.

While 34 percent of people who call in sick to work at the last minute do so because of illness, 66 percent are taking time for other reasons, according to the 2007 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey.

"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 Pamela Wolf, JD, an employment law analyst with Riverwoods, Ill.-based CCH, which provides businesses with human resources and employment law information. "Organizations 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."

The reasons for the other-than-sick absences were: family issues (22 percent), personal needs (18 percent), entitlement mentality (13 percent), and stress (13 percent).

"Traditional sick leave and inflexible time-off policies may put an employee in the position of having to conjure up a cold and take off an entire day when they really just needed two hours to take a parent to a pre-arranged medical appointment," said Wolf.

The story is similar in the U.K., where Business in the Community, an organization of 700 top companies, produced research that said 44 percent of workers said they were discouraged from taking sick days when they were sick, and 55 percent reported stress on the job.

And in Canada, a report called the National Study on Balancing Work, Family and Lifestyle, found that 60 per cent of Canadian workers suffer from high levels of "role overload," or stress from trying to balance work and family commitments.

"The bottom line is if you didn't have the strains, you wouldn't have absenteeism," Chris Higgins, a University of Western Ontario professor of business, told the Edmonton Journal. "There are a lot of people who will take a mental-health day off. They won't call it that, but that's what they're doing."

CCH, which has conducted the unscheduled absence survey for 17 years. says that absenteeism costs some of the largest U.S. businesses more than $760,000 per year in direct payroll costs, and even more when lower productivity, lost revenue, and the effects of poor morale are considered.

CCH says employers can reduce unplanned absences with some creativity. On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being most effective), the work-life programs rated highest for reducing unscheduled absences are alternative work arrangements (3.6), paid leave banks (3.6), telecommuting (3.5), and compressed work week (3.3). While these programs are considered most effective, they aren't used as widely as other programs offered by employers, such as flu shot programs or employee assistance plans.

Telecommuting trims nearly 63 percent of absenteeism, said Chuck Wilsker, president of the Washington D.C.-based Telework Coalition, in The Enquirer of Battle Creek, Mich.

Another benefit, paid leave banks, provide employees with a single block of hours they can use as they like, without managing separate days for sick, vacation, and personal time. Even so, the program has never taken the top spot in terms of what organizations use, according to CCH.

"Year in and year out, employers report that paid leave banks work best to combat unscheduled absenteeism," said Wolf. "They offer employees more flexibility in how they use their time off, which enables them, and the business, to plan for most absences."

You can read the survey results.

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