- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

Absenteeism is on the rise at the nation's biggest companies as the sluggish economy pushes more workers into less rewarding jobs, according to a study by a local firm.
Job stress, lack of responsibility and poor relations with management are causing disillusionment, the study found, and economic conditions make matters worse.
"In a downturn, when jobs are cut, one might think people would say, 'I'd better stay on the job, lest I be the next to go.' But with many big companies, we find just the opposite," said Mike Scofield, senior vice president with Nucleus Technologies Inc., the Arlington-based company that conducted the study. "Anything that increases pressure and demand on the employee will result in greater absences."
Nucleus based its report on discussions with more than 100 executives from Fortune 1000 companies and anecdotal findings from its corporate clients. During the past three to four years, absenteeism rose by 10 percent to 20 percent each year, the study said.
But other reports say absentee rates have either risen slightly or leveled off. A survey conducted by publisher BNA Inc. showed that absence rates during the past three years have hovered at 1.7 percent. CCH Inc., a human resources management group, said in its most recent annual survey that absenteeism rose from 2.1 percent to 2.2 percent last year, after hitting a decade low in 2000.
Most local Fortune 1000 firms said they had no hard figures on absenteeism. But none indicated it was becoming an increasing problem.
"I don't really think we fit that profile," said Norine Lyons, spokeswoman for Falls Church-based General Dynamics. "Our productivity per employee has gone up. That doesn't happen if people are taking off work."
Mr. Scofield said Nucleus' findings don't necessarily mean more employees are playing hooky. Rather, it's an indication that many employees have been less willing to drag themselves to the office when they aren't feeling their best. A happy, engaged employee is far more likely to come to work despite a slight cold or stomachache, he said.
"People's perception of whether they are too sick to work is colored by their incentive to work," Mr. Scofield said.
The study also showed that employees who are unhappy with their jobs are more inclined to take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows workers to take as many as 12 weeks off unpaid in a 12-month period to address family and medical responsibilities.
Nucleus' study said that pay is not a determining factor in absentee rates, but that people working in service and manufacturing jobs tend to call off work more often.
Absence rates among younger workers are higher than those among older employees, a trend that is inverse to sickness rates. Younger workers, Nucleus' findings suggest, often work in entry-level positions with little challenge or responsibility, and without a clear view of their chances for advancement.
"Some of it might be the folly of youth, but we see it as more of an organizational-fit issue," Mr. Scofield said. "Older workers have figured out how to be successful, and they've decided what's the best place for them. Younger workers that's the group that's still shaking out."
Mr. Scofield said local issues, rather than corporate or even national policies, have the greatest bearing on whether people choose to call off work. Relationships with bosses and co-workers have the most effect, he said, and other consulting and human resource groups echo this opinion.
"Increased absenteeism can be especially troubling, because some employees would rather miss work than deal with a difficult co-worker," said a recent report from WorkRelationships Inc., a workplace-consulting firm in Del Mar, Calif.
Mr. Scofield said that seemingly small developments, such as the elimination of a parking-lot security guard at night, particularly if combined with other similar events, can lead to greater dissatisfaction with an employer, and thus, absences.
Also, strict absenteeism policies can be counterproductive, because such policies only breed employee resentment, he said.
Mr. Scofield said it is important to have clear and enforceable policies regarding absenteeism. He also suggests some solutions, including pooling sick days, personal days and vacation time under one category.
"This shifts more of the responsibility of time management to the employee," he said.

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