Absence Control Is a Challenge, Studies Find

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Apr 30, 2009

The last thing an employer wants, particularly when a pandemic threat exists, is for a sick employee to report to work. But when employers experience sick leave abuse and other forms of unnecessary absenteeism, it might be time to take action.

According to a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) poll, employees that take unscheduled time off pose a problem for many organizations. Sixty-three percent of the HR professionals surveyed said unscheduled absences were a problem “to some extent,” while 7 percent said such absences were problematic “to a large extent.”

Yet many organizations take absenteeism in their stride. Nearly a third of HR professionals responding to the poll (30 percent) said unscheduled absences pose no problems for their organization.

Organizations that rely heavily on the presence of employees to provide service to customers, however, are more likely to focus on absence control. One option is the use of a formal plan that offers employees incentives for avoiding unscheduled absences. According to the poll, 17 percent of respondents have an incentive plan, and 3 percent of respondents were considering adding a plan within the next year.

According to those respondents with a plan, the most popular incentives include:

  • Compensation for unused leave—36 percent
  • Extra time off—21 percent
  • Bonuses—19 percent
  • The ability to carry over leave into the next year—8 percent
  • Gift certificates—5 percent

Unscheduled absence and sick leave incentive programs might have some staying power once implemented. Nearly two-thirds of respondents offering such incentives (64 percent) have had an incentive plan in place for five or more years. Yet the poll suggests that new plans continue to be adopted. While just 4 percent of respondents said their plan was new, 11 percent of respondents said their plan had been in place for a year, 10 percent for two years and 8 percent for three years.

Incentives Curb Absenteeism—Some of the Time

Incentive plans have mixed results, according to SHRM. While 16 percent of poll respondents reported their plan had reduced unscheduled time off “to a large extent,” the vast majority of those with such plans (71 percent) indicated that absenteeism had been reduced “to some extent.” Of those reporting positive results, however, most (65 percent) had no documentation or metrics available that could prove their plan had reduced unscheduled time off.

Another 13 percent said the incentive had no impact on unscheduled absences.

Factors such as the plan’s design, the type and value of incentive, and the regularity with which the plan is communicated can impact the success of an incentive plan.

Germs at Work

Sick leave incentive policies might reduce frivolous absenteeism, but they can lead ill employees to report to work, where germs can be spread to unsuspecting co-workers.

This behavior is more likely when there’s talk of layoffs and furloughs, as employees scramble to demonstrate their value to their employers. According to an online survey fielded at the end of January 2009 by Harris Interactive on behalf of The Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc., 30 percent of more than 2,000 respondents said they are more likely to go to work in this economy regardless of their physical or emotional state or scheduling conflicts.

A study published in the Academy of Management Journal that involved 12,500 employees of the department of transportation of a large state, found that a drop in absenteeism associated with high unemployment was concentrated among dissatisfied, disaffected workers—those least likely to contribute to productivity.

“Local unemployment rates had little, if any, effect on job absences in units with high satisfaction or commitment, since absenteeism in those groups was consistently low,” said researcher John P. Hausknecht of Cornell University.

The study contained another piece of bad news for employers: Worker absenteeism has a tendency to creep up over the years, through good and bad times. Over the course of five years, it increased at a rate of about 5 percent a year at the organization being studied.

Such increases might go unnoticed from year to year, the study notes, but over time, the cost of lost productivity can be significant. For example, the researchers estimated absence cost the transportation agency approximately $6.25 million in the final year of the 15-year study.

Sending Sick Employees Home

Managers might choose to send sick employees home, but only if they realize that they are ill.

According to a Jan. 22, 2009, statement from OfficeTeam, a staffing service, 45 percent of professionals surveyed admitted that they “very frequently” go to work when they feel sick, and 30 percent said they do so “somewhat frequently.” However, only 17 percent of managers polled believe that the practice is so common. Fifty-seven percent guessed that employees came to work sick “somewhat frequently.”

The survey included responses from 522 workers 18 years of age or older and employed in office environments, and 150 senior executives at the nation’s 1,000 largest companies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that people follow these actions to stay healthy:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are effective.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread that way.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • If you get sick, stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.

OfficeTeam offers the following tips to employers:

  • Communicate expectations. Let staff know that you prefer that they stay home when they’re sick, to hasten recovery.
  • Set an example. Employees are more likely to stay home when they’re sick if you do the same.
  • Give options. Allowing employees to work from home if they think they’re coming down with a cold or the flu can help them stay productive without spreading a potential illness.
  • Offer help. Bring in temporary professionals to keep projects on track when employees are out sick for more than a day or two.

An Alternative Approach

Another way to reduce unscheduled absences, which is less likely to encourage employees to come to work ill, is by converting a traditional time-off plan, in which vacation and sick leave are allocated and tracked separately, to a paid-time-off (PTO) plan, which groups an individual’s sick, personal and vacation time into one leave pool, giving employees more control over their entire leave balance.

Some employers shy away from PTO plans, fearing that unscheduled absences will increase. Yet the opposite might be true, according to the 2008 Survey of Traditional Time Off and PTO Program Practices, released October 2008 by The Alexander Hamilton Institute (AHI), an employment law advisory group. Forty-four percent of PTO users told AHI that the number of unscheduled absences had dropped by more than 11 percent since they converted to a PTO program. In addition, a quarter of respondents experienced a decrease in the number of employees requesting unpaid time off or borrowing time after converting to PTO.

Overall, 80 percent of PTO respondents praised the system for meeting their expectations, while 16 percent said their plan exceeded expectations.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager at SHRM.

Related Articles:

Attendance Incentives Are Critical for Some Organizations, SHRM Online, Sept. 8, 2008

Paid-Time-Off Benefits Survey, SHRM Online, June 17, 2008


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