Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Need a Day Off? You're Not Alone

April 29th, 2003 | Paula Brantner

In the face of increasing evidence that workers are more stressed out than ever (see 4/21/03 blog entry), one time-honored way that workers cope is to take vacations. And whether it’s a “mental-health” day or a response to true illness, sometimes workers just need to take sick days. However, at the time these coping mechanisms are most needed, it appears that workers are now either reducing the amount of vacation and sick leave they use, or declining to use them altogether. As companies work to reduce health care costs and shift an increasing amount of benefit costs to employees, this may be a “penny-wise, pound-foolish” solution for both employees and employers. And as we are learning in the case of SARS, a worker who chooses to work even while sick may end up endangering the lives of his or her coworkers (see 4/23/03 blog entry).

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of people taking sick or personal days off dropped last year by 200,000 a week nationally, as compared with two years earlier. According to a survey of human-resource managers by CCH Inc. a Riverwoods, Ill., research firm, employee absentee rates are at or near their lowest levels since 1991. (See Wall Street Journal article.) Doctors also have noted the shift: many are seeing a decline in patients requesting sick notes, and a jump in requests for painkillers that will help them stay at work. “People are afraid they’re going to lose their jobs,” said Banks Turner, a Richmond, VA physician.

What accounts for all this declining use of sick leave? According to a recently published news article, “[t]he bleak job market has spurred more workers to keep their runny noses to the grindstone rather than risk appearing lazy or, worse, dispensable.” (See Seattle Times article.) As Karen Lovich, a Pittsburgh nurse, notes: “Everybody can be replaced.” Some workers are also under pressure from their employers to reduce the number of sick days. Donald J. Carty, the now-departed chief executive of AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, told workers in a phone message earlier this year that the company spends $1 million a day in absences and that he wants employees to call in sick less. Borders Group Inc., the bookstore chain, cut paid personal days to six from nine last year — a move that eventually played a role in two stores’ decision to subsequently unionize.

Those who have accumulated vacation time are not taking it nearly as often as before either. One industry commentator notes

I think because of the economic climate we’re in, many folks are very short-staffed. What we’re finding is many of the executives are holding down dual responsibilities. Demands on time are making getting away more and more difficult, especially with companies in the state they’re in today. . . . I think executives are really buckling down and saying they can’t afford to get away like they used to.

(See Washington Post article.) The problem is not just limited to executives, as those at every level of employment are faced with the same situation. Individuals are doing the work of more than one person. They also want to say, ‘I’m a good team player,’ to boost their job security. In fact, employees who put in extra hours and forego vacation time may be setting an example for executives by putting their personal lives on hold and stepping up to the plate during these difficult times.

Yet foregoing sick leave and vacation time is not without its costs, either. A worker who is truly sick may be physically present at work, but operating at a fraction of his or her usual productivity. One worker who used all of the sick days she was allowed last year, was nonetheless written up and told by her HR department that “good employees have a bank of sick leave.” She now says, “So now, with layoffs and the state of the economy, I’m going to be coming to work — and if that means showing my face with a sinus infection where I’m unable to even think, I’m absolutely going to be there.” (See Seattle Times article.) One analysis estimates that “presenteeism” (the opposite of absenteeism, where a worker is present at work but not fully productive) is responsible for two-thirds of the $250 billion in health-related lost-labor costs each year. AdvancePCS, a health-services company, arrived at the astronomical figure based on phone surveys that asked about 30,000 people to visualize and recount what they did at work on days they weren’t feeling well.

Infection of coworkers is always a concern, especially during cold and flu season. Some try to minimize contact with coworkers and cancel face-to-face meetings, but nonetheless soldier on in the office instead of staying home. However, this approach may become less advisable in the workplace given the advent of SARS, an illness with symptoms mimicking that of the flu which is believed to be transmitted through respiratory droplets. Most companies (and most workers, for that matter) would probably prefer that workers with contagious illnesses take the sick leave they need until the period during which they can infect others has passed, rather than running the risk of even more absenteeism among infected coworkers. But many do not transmit that message to individual employees–instead, workers are pressured to ignore what are seen as minor–albeit contagious–illnesses and keep on working, despite the risk of workplace contagion they present.

Those who do not take the vacation they need may increasingly find themselves rundown (and further susceptible to illness), stressed out, and ultimately less productive. As one executive recognizes, “[p]eople need to get away from it, relax, clear their head, build up energy,” but cannot do these things if they fear taking the vacation time their jobs provide. See Washington Post article.) Families suffer as well, as the typical summer vacation where parents take the time to bond with their children may be in much shorter supply this year. This phenomenon also affects employment statistics and contributes to more unemployment: companies who have required their current employees to work more hours and take less leave time are less likely to hire additional workers, on a temporary, seasonal, or permanent basis, to handle the workload, meaning that those who are currently out of work are less likely to find work, even for a temporary period.

So what should a worker who needs time off do? One consultant recommends asking for days off well in advance whenever possible, and making sure harried co-workers won’t get stuck with too much work, since breeding resentment might make it tougher the next time someone needs a personal day. Another suggests making the point that an occasional personal day can actually contribute to overall improved output. However, she suggests that it pays first to have a clear sense of what’s stressing out your supervisor and framing your requests so they don’t exacerbate his or her own anxieties. (See Wall Street Journal article.) Companies who want to ensure that workers use a minimum of sick leave may increasingly be offering banks of paid time off that employees can use however they see fit. While some fear that this practice may actually encourage workers to come to work sick to avoid “wasting” vacation time, it may also help the worker who just needs to take a break every once in a while take the time they need to be more productive workers, rather than fearing they will be chastized for misuse of sick leave.

Both workers and employers should remember that having a worker be present but minimally productive is not without its costs, and that in many cases, workers taking the time off they need benefits everyone–not just the worker involved. A worker who works too much may not be doing anyone any favors, including even his or her employer.

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