Absentee Rates Soared In 2004

January 1, 2005       Robert Ford      

Workplace absenteeism hit a five-year high in 2004 and experts said it was due in large measure to policies reducing the amount of sick time workers receive each year.

Some 2.4 percent of workers at a combined 305 for-profit and nonprofit entities nationwide called out sick between June, 2003 and June, 2004, compared to 1.9 percent during the same period between 2002 and 2003.

The study was conducted by the Rochester, N.Y.-based research firm, Harris Interactive, on behalf of CCH Inc., of Riverwoods, Ill. The nonprofit versus for-profit ratios were not broken out, as had been done in previous years, said Neil Allen, a CCH spokesman.

Lori Rosen, workplace analyst for CCH, said employers are instituting policies that do not let workers carry sick time from one year to the next. “Their policy is use it or lose it, and few employees are willing to lose it,” Rosen said.

The number of employers allowing workers to carry over sick time has decreased from about 51 percent in 2000 to only 37 percent in 2004, Rosen explained.

Even though more employees are taking time off from work, the cost of unexcused absences decreased from approximately $645 last year to $610 this year, Rosen said. The cost decreased because of the economy. “People are working cheaper, for lower salaries. Jobs are harder to come by,” she said.

Also pushing the rates upward is that people are also looking to better balance their lives. “Companies are giving workers more to do, and asking fewer employees to do more work. There is less free time for them to take care of the things that need taking care of at home, so they are taking more time off.”

Employee time off from work breaks down:

  • 38 percent due to illness;
  • 23 percent for family issues;
  • 18 percent for personal needs;
  • 11 percent because of stress; and,
  • 10 percent because of an “entitlement mentality.”

Last year, illness was 36 percent, 22 percent for family issues, 18 percent was for personal needs, 13 percent for “entitlement mentality,” and 11 percent for stress. Entitlement mentality, Rosen said, is when an employee thinks that he or she is entitled to time off.

As part of the survey, CCH looked at how absenteeism differed between companies with low employee morale and those with good morale, Rosen said.

Absenteeism at companies reporting low morale is 2.9 percent, which is 35 percent more than companies reporting good morale, which have a 1.9 percent absenteeism rate.

The survey also looked at presenteeism, which is when an employee really is sick but goes into work anyway. Such action, according to Rosen, can lead to potential problems, such as passing the illness onto fellow employees and lowered production from the ill employee.

Rosen said the biggest problem with presenteeism exists at those companies with the lowest morale because employees are concerned with what will happen to them if they don’t show up for work. Some 52 percent of the companies with poor morale among workers reported a problem with presenteeism, while only 31 percent of companies with good morale said they had a problem.

To help combat absenteeism, companies try a number of solutions, Rosen said. Of those surveyed:

  • 91 percent use disciplinary action;
  • 79 percent use yearly employee reviews;
  • 76 percent use verification of illness;
  • 63 percent use paid leave banks;
  • 48 percent of the companies buy back unused sick time.

The two that work the best, according to those surveyed are disciplinary action and paid leave bank. Both rated a 3.5 success rating on a scale of 1 to 5.

In an effort to curb workplace absenteeism, increasingly, companies are offering work-life programs. These are programs that offer employees flexibility, whether it is a flex-time work schedule, the ability to leave early for family commitments such as going to a child’s school function or taking off to help care for an elderly parent.

The four work-life programs that employers say work the best in helping curb employee absenteeism are: alternative work arrangement; leave for school functions; telecommuting; and, compressed workweek, Rosen said. On a 1 to 5 scale of effectiveness, alternative work arrangements received a 3.4, leave for school functions, telecommuting, compressed work week and on-site child care all received 3.2, while wellness programs and emergency child care each received a 3.0.