Employers Scaling Back on Effective Work/Life Programs

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 19, 2007
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Taken together, family issues and personal needs account for more unscheduled sick days than actual illness. However, employers are scaling back on the number of work/life programs they say are effective at reducing those unscheduled absences, according to a new survey.

The findings are from the 17th annual CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey released in October 2007.

“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 prearranged medical appointment,” CCH employment law analyst Pamela Wolf, J.D., said in a press release.

“Many employees today are asked to give 110 percent on the job—to do more with fewer staff, work long hours and handle work-related issues after hours from home,” she said.

“But these workers may also be part of dual-earning families, or they may be single parents or caregivers for aging parents. They are willing to go the extra mile for the company, but they are also taking back the time when they need it to care for themselves and their families.”

They’re taking back that time by calling in sick when they are not. Personal illness was the real reason only about one-third, or 34 percent, of employees stayed home from work in 2007.

The other 66 percent took sick time because of family issues (22 percent), personal needs (18 percent), a feeling of entitlement (13 percent) and stress (13 percent), according to the survey. The findings are based on responses from 317 HR executives in U.S. organizations in 48 states. Nearly one million employees work for the organizations represented by the HR executives who participated in the survey.

What is needed, Wolf said, is for employers to offer an appropriate range of work/life and absence-control programs.

Work/Life Programs

In 2007, employers offered an average of nine work/life programs aimed at reducing unscheduled absences. That’s down from an average of 11.

Not only that, there seems to be a disconnect between what programs employers think are most effective at reducing unscheduled absences and what programs they offer employees.

Among the five work/life programs the executives ranked as most effective, four—alternative work arrangements, telecommuting, compressed workweeks and leave for school functions—declined in use by employers, the survey found.

Only flu shots—considered the fourth most effective by those surveyed—are increasing in use among employers. Sixty-six percent now offer them, up from 64 percent in 2006.

Employers may be trying to offset the spiraling cost of health care by eliminating programs they see as “nice to have” vs. those they believe they “need to have,” Wolf suggested.

“Some organizations view work/life programs 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,” she said.

The number of absence-control programs used by employers also fell, from six in 2006 to five in 2007.

There’s a lack of alignment here, too, between the absence-control programs offered and those that employers think are the most effective. The survey found:

  • Disciplinary action was the most used absence-control program in 2007. Employers ranked it second most effective.
  • The yearly review was the second most used program; it was not among the five programs employers considered most effective.
  • Verification of illness, the third most used, ranked fifth most effective.

Paid leave banks, fourth most used, ranked No. 1 in effectiveness.

  • No-fault programs, fifth most used, was not among the five programs employers considered most effective. No-fault programs provide a predetermined number of days off available for use regardless of the reason.

Buy-back programs, which allow an employee to sell back his or her unused time to the employer, and bonuses to motivate workers not to take unscheduled absences, were among those programs employers ranked most effective at controlling absences but the least used.

Putting Effective Programs in Place

The good news: The absentee rate improved to 2.3 percent in 2007, down from 2.5 percent in 2006. The all-time high of unscheduled absences was in 1998, at 2.9 percent, the survey found.

However, the nation’s largest employers—those with 1,000 or more employees— estimate unscheduled absences cost their businesses more than $760,000 per year per company in direct payroll costs. The cost is more when lower productivity, lost revenue and the impact of poor morale are computed, according to CCH.

Given the business case for absence-control programs, employers need to periodically take stock of their employee demographics.

“The first step to implementing an effective absence-management program is to have a good understanding of your employee population and their needs,” Wolf said.

“Organizations can’t just stand still and hope the same programs they had in place 10 years ago will be effective for the next generation of employees, or for older workers who are remaining in the workforce longer,” she observed.

CCH recommends that employers take the following actions to make sure they have effective programs:

  • Capture and analyze data on absence trends and patterns. Involve management, HR and employees.
  • Research work/life and absence-control program options and best practices.
  • Evaluate program options. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis; evaluate the effectiveness, benefits and costs of current programs and do the same for new programs; study the effect of eliminating ineffective programs.
  • Communicate the programs and policies, giving managers information and guidance in advance and annually reminding employees of company practices and expectations.
  • Every three to five years, formally re-evaluate employee and business needs and the effectiveness of your absence-management programs. Do this more often if your organization experiences major changes.

CCH is a provider of HR and employment law information and services. Its online survey was conducted June 28 to July 17, 2007.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org

Related Article:

Low Morale Tied to Rise in Unscheduled Absences, Presenteeism, HR News, Dec. 5, 2006

Related Resources:

Paid Time Off Policy, SHRM Knowledge Center

Attendance Policy, SHRM Knowledge Center

For the latest HR-related business and government news, go daily to www.shrm.org/hrnews

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