Taking a 'mental health day'
April 27, 2004
By Richard A. Marini
SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS
You know who they are: the co-workers who always seem to call in sick on a Monday or Friday; the ones who invariably make a point of coughing loudly or complaining of a sore throat the day before taking a sick day.
In other words, they're the ones you know aren't sick, but instead are playing hooky from work.
A recent Harris poll found that 21 percent of American adults have called in sick at least once when they weren't actually ill. The poll, done on behalf of the maker of Cepacol brand sore throat products, also found little difference in how often men and women played hooky. One in five men (20 percent) admitted being guilty of this workplace deception while 22 percent of women said they'd done so.
Now a full-time mother of four, Patricia Wallace sheepishly admits to falsely calling in sick at least once when she worked at Shell Oil. Technically, she was sick, just not from a cold or the flu.
"This was 20 years ago when I was single and living the life in New Orleans. I remember staying up too late the night before and not wanting to get up and go to work the next day. So I called and told them I wasn't feeling well."
Indeed, only 36 percent of unscheduled absences last year were actually illness-related, according to a survey by CCH Inc., a Riverwoods, Ill., human resources information provider. The rest of the time, employees were out due to family issues, personal needs, stress and what the survey calls an "entitlement mentality" -- the feeling that people who work hard (or think they do) are entitled to a day off.
CCH estimates absenteeism costs companies $645 per employee per year and that employees took an average of 5.6 sick days in 2003, down from 6.2 days the year before.
"People used less sick time last year because of the economic situation," says Lori Rosen, a CCH workplace analyst. "They didn't want to be seen as someone who took a lot of time off."
Some employers say they're willing to turn a blind eye to the practice as long as it doesn't get out of hand.
"Someone who always calls in on a Monday will raise an eyebrow," says Cindy Perez, controller of Fencecrete America, a manufacturer of concrete fencing in San Antonio. "We prefer to trust our employees instead of checking up on them to make sure they're not taking advantage."
The high rate of hooky playing was one of the more interesting findings of the survey, intended to gauge people's attitudes and behaviors concerning illness, according to Emily Blasi, spokeswoman for Combe Inc., maker of Cepacol products. Blasi suspects the actual number of people who call in sick without being sick is even higher.
"People are reluctant to admit they do because it's admitting you're dishonest," she says. "I think the real reason they often do is because they need, like, a 'mental health day.' But companies don't give mental health days, they give sick days. So people call in sick instead."