More workers go AWOL

Summer has more than its share of unplanned absences. Bosses should ask: Are my workers afraid to take time off?

Whenever Nicholas Are­­takis, a career coach for recent graduates, talks with 20-somethings, he finds that some need a friendly reminder about workplace attendance. Calling in sick, he cautions them, isn't the same as playing hooky from class.

"Blowing off a day of work on a Friday to go camping with friends is quite tempting," says Mr. Aretakis, author of "No More Ramen: The 20-Something's Real World Survival Guide." "But you just can't take off work and slack off. You need to have a valid excuse for taking unplanned time off."

This time of year, when the sun shines brightly and beaches beckon, workplace experts have a term for the scattered empty seats in some businesses: seasonal absence syndrome. It affects employees of all generations and all types of work, becoming part of a continuous cycle that costs employers millions of dollars in lost productivity.

"It's a seasonal uptick in a year-round problem," says Joseph Harkins, an employment lawyer in at Littler Mendelson in Washington, D.C. "The weather is nicer, and there's a little more incentive to be creative in coming up with excuses."

He and other workplace specialists emphasize that most employees are honest and conscientious about being on the job. Even so, at any given time, 5 to 7 percent of the workforce is absent, says Karen English, who designs absence-management programs for Spring Consulting Group in Boston. "About 60 percent of it is unscheduled – people calling in sick on Mondays or Fridays, or random times."

In a Mercer/Marsh survey of more than 600 companies with 100 or more employees, more than half report that unscheduled absences result in reduced production. Nearly 40 percent find a reduced level of customer service and sales. One-third note that more employees are requesting intermittent leaves.

Absentee rates are rising, say em­­ployment experts. They cite a variety of reasons. "People who have family responsibilities are in the workforce more and more," Mr. Harkins says. "Kids are a source of unexpected absences."

More time off from work is legally protected by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and state versions of it.

Attitudinal shifts play a role as well. "There's a sense that it's more legitimate than it used to be, to be absent," Harkins says.

Even labor shortages are affecting attendance. "So many companies are trying to woo away people," says Francie Dalton, president of Dalton Alliances in Columbia, Md. As they seek out people for interviews, absenteeism is going up.

"Candidates do lie to take off to interview to go somewhere else," says Jonathan Bender, managing partner of Princeton One in Pittsburgh.

Why are people avoiding work?

Absentee rates are also increasing because employers are not offering what employees consider "sufficient" vacation, Ms. Dalton says. "They are taking it in the form of absenteeism." Studies show that workers value time off as much as or more than they value compensation.

Like students making up "the dog ate my homework" excuses, no-shows in the labor force fabricate some whoppers to justify an absence.

"One employee told me, 'I hit a deer,' "Mr. Bender recalls. "But he came in the next day in the same auto without a scratch."

When Ceridian LifeWorks asked human resources managers to share bizarre excuses that employees have given, the results ranged from "I was trapped in my house by a skunk" to "The barometer was too high." Others include: "The neighbor's dog died in front of my garage, and I couldn't get the door open"; "My car tires were repossessed"; "My car was up on blocks"; "I didn't have a key to lock my house because my mom took it"; and "My apartment was so cold that my hair froze after I washed it."

Kenneth Siegel, an organizational psychologist in Los Angeles, says that in cases of chronic absenteeism, bosses must ask: "What is going on in the office that causes people not to want to be at work? Consider those factors that encourage people to engage in avoidance."

Although bosses talk about maintaining a work-life balance, Mr. Siegel suggests this test: "How do managers react when someone calls in and says, 'I'm going to take the day off to be with family or friends'? If they just want to be with their kids or go to the beach, they shouldn't have to lie about it."

The challenge for employers, Siegel says, is: "How do we create a culture where telling the truth isn't punished, and where taking personal time is not something people are afraid to do?"

An even greater challenge faces low-wage workers. Three out of 4 have no paid sick days, and some do not even get vacation days, says Beth Shulman, author of "The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans." Their ranks include workers in restaurants, nursing homes, ho­­tels, and child-care centers.

"Any absenteeism means you can lose your job," Ms. Shulman says. "It happens all the time."

Getting fired for absenteeism is far less likely among white-collar workers. "Employers are willing to put up with it now in ways they were not willing to do 10 years ago," Dalton says. "Employees are in the driver's seat. Employers can't replace employees. They're less quick to impose punitive consequences for absenteeism."

Interviews, background checks, and training all add to the cost of hiring. Managers are reluctant to lose that investment by letting people go.

Still, absences exact a price. "People with absentee issues tend not to get promotions, raises, and bonuses," Harkins says.

Because absenteeism is so unpredictable, managers cannot plan. "If employers know you're going to be out, they can get a replacement worker or backup staff," Ms. English says.

To reduce summertime absences, some companies close on Fridays or put flexible schedules in place. And throughout the year, more employers are giving paid time off, which can be used either for vacation or sick leave.

Marsha Petrie Sue, the author of professional development books, finds that approximately 10 percent of an employee group is absent on a regular basis. The main reason is not because they are ill, but because they are stressed out.

When she worked in a high-stress job in the corporate world, her boss devised a creative solution. He gave people five "MIA" days – missing in action – beyond the allotted sick days. "You did not have to tell anybody why you were out," Ms. Sue says. "You could golf, go to the movies, or sit and watch the grass grow. Most people didn't even use them."

An opposite problem, presenteeism, occurs when people report to work even when they are ill or should stay home for other reasons.

"You go in, but you're not as productive as you might be," English says. "Or you might have family issues – childcare, or something that's taking you away from your focus at work." Some show up because they fear a loss of income. Others are afraid they'll be replaced.

In his work with young adults, Aretakis explains that they must earn time off. "They have to assimilate into the workplace culture and develop a good relationship with their supervisor," he says. His advice: "Keep track of your contributions and your achievements. If you want to ask for something, it's great if you've already delivered something."

Offer flexibility for personal lives

Managers have responsibilities too, of course. "Treat employees respectfully," advises Ruth Storrings, human resources director at AlphaStaff in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "If you have appropriate policies, you don't need to worry about disciplinary measures."

But such measures remain important when infractions occur repeatedly. "When as a manager you see an abuse of absenteeism, you must deal with it, and deal with it directly and firmly," says Bernadette Kenny, chief career officer of Adecco Group in Melville, N.Y.

Most absenteeism comes when employees need flexibility in their lives, says Kim Hahn, CEO of Conceive magazine. "To the extent you can offer employees some flexibility and give them options to handle their personal lives, you're at lower risk for higher absenteeism and at higher potential for a good thing, which is loyalty from your employees. If you make it available for them to manage their personal lives and their children, they're there for you at the end of the day."

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