More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
More workers take mental health days
April 5, 2004
Sacramento Bee

Your garage door is jammed in the open position. You suddenly need three days off to be in an opera. Or you're just plain sick - sick of work, that is.

If you tell your boss you won't be coming to work for the day, you're not alone. These days, many employees feel "entitled" to skip work when life's challenges wear them down. These unscheduled "mental health days" reflect stress tied in part to the national shift toward higher productivity and smaller staffs.

"It's a mental health day," explained one California state worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, for obvious reasons. People are overtly saying that these days. You hear it more and more, as in, "I just can't stand it here."

The desire to job-hop is building, say labor trend experts, and once the economy recovers, some employers will see heavy turnover. Employees in public and private industry alike take mental health days, typically in addition to those days employers already set aside to handle ordinary time off, such as scheduled personal days or vacations.

Nine years ago, workers cited personal illness 45 percent of the time, compared with 36 percent last year, according to CCH Inc., a business owners’ resource. By contrast, personal needs and an entitlement mentality accounted for 31 percent of absences among those surveyed last year, compared with 22 percent.

Excuses have become increasingly creative; some managers would say they've become incredible. "I'm going to jail," said one employee, issuing a stunner some years ago to his boss at Accountemps, a temporary staffing firm. "I have plastic surgery scheduled," said another worker. And, "my cat has hairballs," said yet another.

Avoiding work, however, isn't always a reason to chuckle. "Absenteeism and lateness . . . are generally categorized as examples of employee withdrawal," said Scott Brooks, executive consultant at Gantz Wiley Research in Minneapolis. "Certainly not all types of absenteeism come from a psychological need to be elsewhere or to be distanced from a job," he added. "There can clearly be external factors at play, such as when a child is sick."

But increased worry among workers nationally about job security is playing a role, labor experts say. In February, concerns about the labor market and a growing belief about fewer jobs shook consumer confidence. It declined a sharp nine points, according to a Conference Board report.

"With all these layoffs . . . and worry about job security . . ., employees are concluding that executives and leaders aren't demonstrating that employees are clearly important to the success of the organization," Brooks said. "And workers begin thinking about quitting."

Many, however, don't feel they can afford to quit right now. Turnover last year fell nationally to 8.4 percent, down from almost 16 percent at its peak in 2000, according to Sibson Consulting, a division of the business-consulting firm Segal Co.

The reason cited? Rising unemployment and layoffs. One day, however, the employers will no longer hold the advantage, experts warn, and turnover will escalate.

Employees are saying: "We're not leaving right now because we're not sure we have a place to go," said Tom Morrison of Segal Co. Then according to Morrison, they add: "But guess what, as soon as the job market picks up, we're outta here."

Some companies such as hospitals that rely heavily on the nursing industry will be hard hit, even as they cope with a national nursing shortage. Every nurse who doesn't show up has to be replaced, often with overtime pay. Retailers, too, will have to find ways to cover a sales floor when a sales associate doesn't show.

To manage absenteeism, companies are putting incentives or other strategies in place, Morrison said. In some cases, workers can earn time off when they go without an absence for a prescribed period.

Other companies are taking an umbrella approach to managing employees' paid time away from work. "When a company sees absenteeism increase, the root cause may be employee dissatisfaction with the work environment," Morrison warned. "Employers should look at this as a smoking gun."
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