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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Absence Proof the Workplace

Dr. Gary Roberts
Robertson School of Government

Workplace stress levels are higher than ever before. A recent American Psychological Association life stress survey indicated that 69% of those polled experience serious job stress.

 How employees respond in their attempt to relieve stress is one of the major public health issues of our day given its link with a whole host of costly physical and mental health outcomes (depression, anxiety, cardiovascular problems, and compromised immune systems, among others.) It is important to cultivate in both employers and employees responsible, ethical, and efficacious stress reduction and coping policies and practices.

From the employee perspective, the challenge is to reduce inappropriate repression and avoidance strategies that “medicate” stress with drugs, alcohol, and chronic absenteeism. In addition, employees should select jobs based upon compatibility of interests, temperament, skills, ability and passion. Workers experience higher stress levels when they are a “square peg in a round hole” position. In turn, employers must resist the temptation to benefit from short term exploitation and “burn out” workers and ignore the cumulative impact of stress thereby imposing what economists call “negative externalities,” a form of social pollution that is born by employees, their families and broader society.

As noted previously, a predictable and understandable employee response to chronic stress is absenteeism. When stress levels soar, so does employee absenteeism as workers use sick leave for “mental health days.” A Commerce Clearing House (CCH) 2007 survey found that 2/3 of all unscheduled absences are not due to physical illness, but for family issues (22%), personal needs (18%), entitlement mentality (13%) and workplace stress (13%.) This level of absenteeism imposes real costs for employers and consumers increasing the price of goods and services, hence a hidden form of taxation. From 1995 to 2007, CCH data indicates that the per employee cost of absenteeism ranged from $602 to $789.

What is the solution to this problem? The answer is complicated depending on the root cause of the absenteeism issue. In a healthy work environment, employees want to come to work. If the organization treats and compensates employees fairly and provides meaningful work that is intrinsically motivating, the opposite problem of presenteeism (employees working when sick) may be a far greater problem than chronic absenteeism. The most effective strategy is to provide a high quality of work environment to cultivate norms and values of high engagement, work commitment, and organizational citizenship. When employees trust management, they are more sensitive to the dysfunctional effects of chronic absenteeism (lost productivity, higher labor costs, and stress on coworkers). In contrast, punitive or coercive absenteeism control policies impose a climate of legalism that demonstrates an absence of worker trust. This creates a natural defense mechanism to “work to the letter” resulting in minimum compliance and engagement.

Employees, in turn, possess obligations to work for employers with excellence and resist the temptation to abuse absenteeism policies. Good organizational citizen employees recognize that using sick days for non illness related reasons is a form of employee theft and creates stress for coworkers and reducing productivity. Many employees adopt the morally relativistic mindset surrounding absenteeism. If they mistreat me, I will mistreat them, if they are lax, I will take advantage of the system. In these situations, good citizen employees honor ethical standards and work to the best of their abilities. No employee can endure temptation for prolonged periods without dysfunctional consequences, and in those cases in which the employer refuses to change the adverse job conditions, employees should consider resigning if efforts to influence or improve workplace treatment are rebuffed.

A major issue in absenteeism control policy is the balance between punitive measures to deter the minority of abusers and positive incentives to reward employees. Punitive measures communicate an absence of trust, and coercive measures begat rebellion and resistance. The ideal system is to have an ethical workforce that self monitors behavior and internalizes responsibility for conscientiousness job attendance and performance. The punitive measures are reserved for the minority of recalcitrant employees. It is a given that work attendance is a basic job requirement, and that rewards should not be forthcoming for fulfilling a basic ethical obligation. If the underlying dysfunctional dynamics are addressed, absenteeism rates improve dramatically. When both employers and employees honor their obligations, society as a whole benefits producing more effective goods and services and a more humane and just work environment.

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