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Sick Leave Abuse: A Chronic Workplace Ill?

Encourage Appropriate Sick Leave Use

By Maureen Smith

Article by Maureen Smith

To encourage employees to use sick leave programs properly, many organizations use cash incentives or other benefits. The following are incentive statistics from the HR Center Personnel Program Inventory Survey, developed by the International Personnel Management Association. Of the 428 IPMA Agency Members who responded, the survey found the following:

  • 58 percent cash-out sick leave at retirement;

  • 45 percent offer cash/pay for unused sick leave;

  • 33 percent offer sick leave sharing/leave banks;

  • 11 percent convert sick leave to vacation time;

  • Nine percent convert sick leave to insurance at retirement;

  • Three percent convert sick leave to disability insurance; and

  • Two percent convert sick leave to wellness expenses.

There are programs that can assist in addressing sick leave abuse. For example, IPMA’s HR Center has developed two packets that offer important suggestions in helping to curb sick leave abuse and provide general tips on creating sound policies. The first packet — Sick Leave Abuse — covers policies and ideas on attendance bonus programs, sick leave incentives and annual recognition for minimal sick leave use.

The second packet — Paid Time-Off Policies — provides sample policies and tips on developing PTO programs. These comprehensive leave packages combine sick leave, personal time, and vacation into one "unileave." For employers, this can mean less fear of sick leave abuse and, for employees, it often means more flexibility and control.

Many organizations have implemented sick leave incentive programs and policies to discourage absenteeism, and reward employees who maintain excellent attendance records. For example, Broward County, Florida offers a "Bonus Day," where eligible employees earn one day off for any sick time not used within a six-month period.

Calvert County, Maryland offers an incentive bonus, the equivalent of one day’s pay, to any eligible full-time employee who is employed on the first work day in a pay year, and who uses two days or less of sick leave during a pay year. A note of caution: employers considering the establishment of a sick leave incentive program should ensure that the program does not violate the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Critics of sick leave incentive programs suggest that incentives try to bribe employees to act in certain ways, rather than make them want to exhibit the behaviors voluntarily. Another common objection is that such programs indirectly punish employees who have to be out of work legitimately. Parents of young children may resent the perceived "favoritism" bestowed upon their childless coworkers who don’t need sick leave to care for sick children.

Some critics also assert that attendance incentives send the wrong message about sick leave, which has become increasingly important in today’s high-stress work environment. If the use of sick leave is made to look like the wrong behavior, employers risk encouraging employees to overwork themselves to the point of real illness.

Employees who use sick leave legitimately may feel pressure to report to work even when they are seriously ill, which could result in significant health damage and increased health care costs down the line.

The best way to create an incentive program is to, first, examine current policies and management style, and then try to develop ideas for averting and prohibiting abuse. For example, some employers have discovered, upon internal assessment, that the fewer supervisors an employee has, the less likely he or she will abuse sick leave. By investigation and attention to employee and management behaviors, organizations have a greater chance of developing a successful leave incentive program.

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