Sick Leave Abuse: A Chronic Workplace Ill?

How to Handle Sick Leave Abuse in the Workplace

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Do you find that your employees are missing-in-action on a more frequent basis during the summer and during the holiday seasons? Studies show you're right. Unscheduled worker absences are increasing.

According to the "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey," the current employee absenteeism rate, depending on the occupation and industry ranges from 2.1% of the workforce in management, architectural, and engineering occupations to 4% of the workforce in healthcare support occupations. This is a significant percentage of employees absent from work.

How badly is absenteeism affecting US employers?

The Effects of Employee Absenteeism

According to Gallup: "In U.S., Poor Health Tied to Big Losses for All Job Types," employers experience serious loss from absenteeism. "The annual cost to the U.S. in lost productivity due to absenteeism tied to poor health ranges from $160 million among agricultural workers to $24.2 billion among professionals. The total yearly bill across 14 job types for lost productivity due to workers being above normal weight or having a history of chronic conditions is $84 billion."

The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP) reports that employers pay a high price in terms of lost productivity and absenteeism from employee illness.

  • "Four of the 10 most costly health conditions for US employers— angina pectoris (chest pain), high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart attack—are related to heart disease and stroke.
  • "Work-related stress is the leading workplace health problem and a major occupational health risk, ranking above physical inactivity and obesity.
  • "Productivity losses from missed work cost employers $225.8 billion, or $1,685 per employee, each year.
  • "Full-time workers who are overweight or obese and have other chronic health problems miss about 450 million more days of work each year than healthy workers. The result is an estimated cost of more than $153 billion in lost productivity each year.
  • "A 1% annual reduction in the level of four health risks—weight, blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol—has been shown to save $83 to $103 annually in medical costs per person."

Sick Leave Is an Essential Employee Benefit—Even Unused

Sick leave is a necessary benefit for all employees. If an employer doesn’t offer sick leave, they would accelerate health problems and the spread of illness, thereby lowering productivity and morale. Even when employers offer sick leave, employees often come into work sick. This action—known as presenteeism—can result when employees work in an organization where senior leaders and the culture don't support taking time off when sick.

Despite the pressure for perfect attendance to improve customer service and efficiency, employees need equitable sick leave programs for security and overall high performance. Yet, some organizations suffer from sick leave abuse, and sick leave abuse translates into lost dollars.

A Pattern of Sick Leave Abuse

A pattern of abuse in regard to sick leave typically refers to employees who, over a period of time, have violated the organization’s attendance policy on numerous occasions. In order to confidently discipline employees with attendance problems, legal experts say the best bet is to have a clearly written policy that specifies the organization’s standards and employee requirements.

Be sure to specify that discipline—including termination—may result from repeated sick leave abuse and misuse. Keep the policy flexible, since it is virtually impossible to list every single potential offense. You also want to retain the flexibility to deal with employee situations individually should the need arise.

Examples of attendance policy violations include:

  • Number of absences, number of times coming in late, and the number of early departures, all of which exceed the attendance policy allotment;
  • Failing to get permission for leaving early or coming in late;
  • Failing to give advance notice of an employee absence when possible;
  • Failing to report an absence properly; and
  • Failing to submit medical certification upon request.

Determining if and why employees exploit leave policies is important. Just as an employer analyzes turnover, the organization should also look at sick leave abuse trends. Is leave usage higher in one department or under a particular supervisor?

Are workplace practices or policies affecting absences? Do children’s illnesses lead to your employee's time-off? Finding the root cause of sick leave abuse problems helps in addressing the core issues.

How to Monitor Sick Leave Abuse

Methods for monitoring sick leave abuse vary from one organization to the next, but there are some common guidelines all employers can follow. Listed below are some tips on how to manage sick leave abuse cases.

  • Recognize the problem with sick leave abuse and intervene early before it escalates. Managers need to enforce sick leave policies and take appropriate action.
  • Find out why the employee is abusing leave. Talk to employees who are abusing leave and see if their behavior stems from a personal problem. If you find that it does, recommend counseling or refer them to your organization's employee assistance program.
  • Learn to say "no." You shouldn’t let employees get away with abusing leave policies. When you hear a ridiculous request to misuse leave, say "no."
  • Use procedures, regulations, practices, and knowledge to benefit management as well as the employee. Supervisors and managers must work with employees. Their main job is to make certain that all employees are aware of sick leave policies and how to use them.
  • Document everything.

Encourage Appropriate Use of Sick Leave When Employees Are Sick

You don't just have to deal with sick leave abuse—you can encourage appropriate leave use, too.

To encourage employees to use sick leave programs properly, many organizations use cash incentives or other benefits. The following are incentive statistics from the HR Center Personnel Program Inventory Survey, developed by the International Personnel Management Association. Of the 428 IPMA Agency Members who responded, the survey found the following:

  • 58% cash-out sick leave at retirement;
  • 45% offer cash/pay for unused sick leave;
  • 33% offer sick leave sharing/leave banks;
  • 11% convert sick leave to vacation time;
  • 9% convert sick leave to insurance at retirement;
  • 3% convert sick leave to disability insurance; and
  • 2% convert sick leave to wellness expenses.

There are programs that can assist in addressing sick leave abuse. For example, IPMA’s HR Center has developed two packets that offer important suggestions in helping to curb sick leave abuse and provide general tips on creating sound policies. The first packet—"Sick Leave Abuse"—covers policies and ideas on attendance bonus programs, sick leave incentives and annual recognition for minimal sick leave use.

The second packet—"Paid Time-Off Policies"—provides sample policies and tips on developing PTO programs. These comprehensive leave packages combine sick leave, personal time, and vacation into one "unileave." For employers, this can mean less fear of sick leave abuse and, for employees, it often means more flexibility and control.

Many organizations have implemented sick leave incentive programs and policies to discourage absenteeism and reward employees who maintain excellent attendance records. For example, Broward County, Florida offers a "Bonus Day," where eligible employees earn one day off for any sick time not used within a six-month period.

Establish Sick Leave Incentive Programs

Calvert County, Maryland offers an incentive bonus, the equivalent of one day’s pay, to any eligible full-time employee who is employed on the first workday in a pay year, and who uses two days or less of sick leave during a pay year. A note of caution: employers considering the establishment of a sick leave incentive program should ensure that the program does not violate the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Critics of sick leave incentive programs suggest that incentives try to bribe employees to act in certain ways, rather than make them want to exhibit the behaviors voluntarily. Another common objection is that such programs indirectly punish employees who have to be out of work legitimately.

Parents of young children may resent the perceived favoritism bestowed upon their childless coworkers who don’t need sick leave to care for sick children.

Some critics also assert that attendance incentives send the wrong message about sick leave, which has become increasingly important in today’s high-stress work environment. If the use of sick leave is made to look like the wrong behavior, employers risk encouraging employees to overwork themselves to the point of real illness.

Employees who use sick leave legitimately may feel pressure to report to work even when they are seriously ill, which could result in significant health damage and increased health care costs down the line.

The best way to create an incentive program is to, first, examine current policies and management style, and then try to develop ideas for averting and prohibiting abuse. For example, some employers have discovered, upon internal assessment, that the fewer supervisors an employee has, the less likely he or she will abuse sick leave.

By investigation and attention to employee and management behaviors, organizations have a greater chance of developing a successful leave incentive program.