In the last few weeks, I've had a variety of media conversations about sick time abuse following up on a Bloomberg BusinessWeek story in which I was quoted - The Sick Day Bounty Hunters. This story is principally about organizations who are hiring private investigators to track employees who are suspected of malingering. In a television segment I did with Channel 5 in Boston this week, workers interviewed by the anchor shrugged off the occasional faked sick day as an entitlement for hard working employees. Per my comments in the article, it's likely that sick time abuse is expanding due to lowering employee engagement; i.e. as the impact of the recession continues, more people are remaining in their jobs due to lack of alternatives. These disenfranchised workers use available sick time to escape.
The media interest in this story was focused on the employer snooping angle, but the bigger story is really the economic impact of unplanned absences. A joint study published by Kronos and Mercer in June 2010 revealed that unplanned absences (incidental and extended disability absences) account for 8.7% of US Payroll costs in a given year. What I find interesting about all of this is that paid sick time is not a federally mandated worker benefit in the US (like minimum wage and overtime requirements), but rather a benefit that employers voluntarily offer to meet union requirements or remain competitive in labor markets where paid sick time is commonly offered.
So, many employers don't have to offer sick time, but most do in order to remain competitive in the labor market. Many employees, on the other hand, not only see paid sick time as an entitlement, but use it as a means to expand paid vacation time (also not federally mandated in the US).
What's the solution to sick time abuse? Sick time abuse is a symptom, not a disease. Employers should offer paid sick time off (and are mandated to do so in 163 nations around the world) to help employees recover from their own illnesses and participate in the care of their sick family members. Equally important, employers need to reinforce a culture in which workers are encouraged to stay home when they're sick but motivated to be at work when they're not.
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