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Sick Leave Abuse: A Chronic Workplace Ill?

Sick Leave Abuse and Absenteeism Explored

By Maureen Smith

Sick woman laying on sofa blowing nose
Tom Merton/OJO Images/Getty Images
Article by Maureen Smith*

Do you find that your employees are missing-in-action on a more frequent basis during the summer and during the holiday seasons? Studies show you're right. Unscheduled worker absences are increasing and, according to various surveys, governmental agencies have the largest number of absences.

According to CCH Incorporated, a company that produces electronic and print products for the tax, legal, securities, insurance, human resources, health care, and small business markets, unscheduled absenteeism can cost up to an average of $602 per employee, per year.

This cost does not include indirect costs such as overtime pay for other employees, hiring temps, missed deadlines, lost sales, sinking morale and lower productivity. Indirect costs can add up to 25 percent to the direct costs, according to Employee Benefit News and HR News.

In a survey of eleven U.S.-based telecommunications organizations, 72 cents of every dollar of costs related to employee absence stems from lost productivity, rather than hard costs, such as health care and disability benefits (Business Insurance, July 2000).

Sick leave is a necessary benefit for all employees. If an employer didn’t offer sick leave, they would accelerate health problems and the spread of illness, thereby lowering productivity and morale. Despite the pressure for perfect attendance to improve customer service and efficiency, employees need equitable sick leave programs for security and overall high performance. Yet, some organizations suffer from sick leave abuse, and sick leave abuse translates into lost dollars.

A "pattern of abuse" in regard to sick leave typically refers to employees who, over a period of time, have violated the organization’s attendance policy on numerous occasions. In order to confidently discipline employees with attendance problems, legal experts say the best bet is to have a clearly written policy that specifies the organization’s standards and employee requirements.

Be sure to specify that discipline — including termination — may result from repeated sick leave abuse and misuse. Keep the policy flexible, since it is virtually impossible to list every single potential offense.

Examples of attendance policy violations include:

  • Number of absences, number of times coming in late, and number of early departures, all of which exceed the attendance policy allotment;

  • Failing to get permission for leaving early or coming in late;

  • Failing to give advance notice of an absence when possible;

  • Failing to report an absence properly; and

  • Failing to submit medical certification upon request.

Determining if and why employees exploit leave policies is important. Just as an employer analyzes turnover, the organization should also look at sick leave abuse trends. Is leave usage higher in one department or under a particular supervisor? Are workplace practices or policies affecting absences? Do children’s illnesses in turn lead to your employee's time-off? Finding the root cause of sick leave abuse problems helps in addressing the core issues.

Methods for monitoring sick leave abuse vary from one organization to the next, but there are some common guidelines all employers can follow. Listed below are some tips about how to manage sick leave abuse cases.

  • Recognize the problem with sick leave abuse and intervene early before it escalates. Managers need to enforce sick leave policies and take appropriate action.

  • Find out why the employee is abusing leave. Talk to employees who are abusing leave and see if their behavior stems from a personal problem. If you find that it does, recommend counseling or refer them to your organization’s Employee Assistance Program.

  • Learn to say "no." You shouldn’t let employees get away with abusing leave policies. When you hear a ridiculous request to misuse leave, say "no."

  • Use procedures, regulations, practices and knowledge to benefit management as well as the employee. Supervisors and managers must work with employees. Their main job is to make certain that all employees are aware of sick leave policies and how to use them.

  • Document everything.

You don't just have to deal with sick leave abuse - you can encourage appropiate leave use, too.


Maureen Smith is a freelance writer based in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland, College Park. In addition to consulting for the International Personnel Management Association in Alexandria, Virginia, Maureen’s articles have also been featured in various newspapers, magazines, and Web sites. Maureen is an aspiring fiction author. She can be reached at mreensmith@gateway.net.

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