- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2002

More American workers are taking sick days to address personal and family issues, and absenteeism is costing companies more money than ever, according to a new survey.
The September 11 attacks, anthrax scares and other unsettling events in the past year have led many workers to change their priorities. Americans, once heavily dedicated to workplace demands, have recently become more focused on the home, according to the annual Unscheduled Absence Survey by CCH Inc., a publisher of information on human resources and employment law.
"The way we look at life today there are more demands on a person's time than perhaps in the past," said Lori Rosen, a human resources law analyst with CCH. "People are more willing to say, 'I'm going to go take a few hours off to see my kid's science fair.'"
The overall rate of sick days, or unscheduled absences, dropped from 2.2 percent to 2.1 percent.
But the cost is rising, because things like salaries, overtime pay and insurance are going up. The average per-employee cost of absenteeism rose to $789 for 2002, up from $755 last year, CCH said. And, more than two-thirds of workers are using unscheduled "sick" time for reasons other than physical illness. About 21 percent of unscheduled absences in 2002 were for personal needs, up from 11 percent last year. Unscheduled absences for family issues rose from 21 percent to 24 percent.
Employment analysts said that companies face higher absenteeism costs also because they have fewer workers, meaning a single absence can have a more direct effect on productivity.
"Companies are cut to the bone, and sometimes into the bone," said Michael Scofield, a senior vice president with Nucleus Technologies, an Arlington-based firm that analyzes the effectiveness of work forces. "When people don't show up, it has a pretty big ripple effect."
CCH did not specifically draw a link between the reasons for absenteeism and its cost. But the group said better management of employees' personal needs would save companies money by reducing absences.
The increase in the use of sick days for personal and family use is a product of changing times, analysts said.
There are now more single parents, fewer workers with stay-at-home spouses and more workers with elderly parents in need of attention.
And recent world events have caused many people to place personal and family issues ahead of workplace demands, analysts said.
"This is just too much stress not to have an impact," Mr. Scofield said. "Increase in absence is one of the manifestations you will see."
Many companies reported higher absentee rates after the September 11 attacks, but they were, for the most part, firms that the survey considered to have "fair" or "poor" employee morale.
Human resources analysts said that employers can improve morale and unwanted absences by having sensible policies addressing workers' personal needs. Compressed workweeks, on-site child care centers and a variety of alternative work arrangements can be effective, the CCH survey said.
CCH rated 10 different programs designed to address personal issues on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most effective.
Most programs were given a rating between 3 and 3.5. Companies with more programs generally had higher morale and fewer absences, the survey showed.
But Mr. Scofield said programs do not always properly address workers' personal needs.
"What we see are some poorly thought-out programs," he said. "You have to think through the policies and see if they are appropriate to the work force."

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