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Dealing with AbsenteeismIf you’ve ever had an employee call in sick, there’s a pretty good chance that employee wasn’t actually sick. According to one survey from Harris Interactive, 52 percent of American employees admit to having called in sick when they weren’t actually sick. What do employees do when they pretend to be ill in order to take the day off from work? In the U.S., the two most popular activities among employees who aren’t really sick are watching TV and going back to bed. But there are plenty of other reasons employees might pretend illness in order to take the day off from work.

Why Do Employees Fake Illness?

Many employees use sick time to take personal days both because they’ve run out of paid vacation days, and also because they feel entitled to use their paid sick time each year. As a result, employees may see this time as simply another form of paid vacation time, and may rely on it to take time off to attend special events or make time for hobbies they’re passionate about. But sometimes employees feel that they have no choice but to use sick days even though they’re not sick.

Employees who have children or who are taking care of aging relatives may feel forced to take sick days when those in their care are sick, or when they have personal obligations such as taking their child or relative to the doctor. Ultimately, however, an employee’s misuse of sick days can have ramifications for the whole company, no matter what the individual employee’s reasons are.

Employees who misuse sick days leave their teammates in the lurch, scrambling to absorb the extra work. They also tend to find themselves out of sick days when they’re actually sick, and are therefore forced to come to work anyway and infect everyone else — before you know it, half the office is out sick, for real this time. Excessive absenteeism must be dealt with — but discipline is only one option.

Confronting an Absentee EmployeeConfronting the Absentee Employee

Of course, employees who use sick days may very well be sick. To distinguish between the employee who is genuinely ill and the one who just wants a day off, keep accurate records of employee sick days and look for patterns. If an employee seems to take a lot of sick days at a certain time of year — for example, during hunting season or ski season — it’s possible that person is taking advantage of sick time to pursue a hobby. A young employee who regularly calls in sick on Monday may be partying too hard on the weekends. Someone who regularly calls in sick on the Friday before or the Monday after a long weekend is clearly trying to extend the holiday.

But there may not necessarily be a pattern to an employee’s excessive absenteeism. If an employee is using sick days to care for a child or relative, they may do so at random. If your employee takes more than three sick days in a row to care for a relative, it may fall under FMLA guidelines.

If you think someone is misusing sick days, or if they’re trying to take more sick days than company policy allows, you need to address the situation. A conversation with the employee is usually enough to correct the behavior; if the employee is facing special circumstances or needs a schedule adjustment, a talk will give you the chance to gain insights. If there are no extenuating circumstances and your employee continues to miss work, you will need to move forward with the discipline process according to company policy.

Accommodating Employees’ Personal Needs

According to a 2007 survey by CCH, 22 percent of unscheduled absences are due to family problems, while 18 percent can be chalked up to personal needs and a further 13 percent to stress. Many employees have personal obligations or pursuits they’re passionate about, but have trouble finding time for them in a traditional nine-to-five work schedule. Implementing a flexible scheduling policy can give employees the breathing room they need to manage their lives outside of work, and cut down on unscheduled absences drastically.

After all, an employee who needs to take his or her elderly mother to a routine doctor’s appointment doesn’t need to take the whole day off work, and neither does an employee who wants to attend a morning performance of his or her child’s school play. But both of these employees may be forced to use a whole sick day in an inflexible work environment. Decide how many hours a week your employees must put in, and what times of day they absolutely need to be in the office, and then allow them the chance to schedule their work days around those parameters. That way, an employee who needs to take his or her relative to the doctor can do so, then come in later and maybe stay later in order to make up for the lost time. Alternatively, employees with family obligations, or those who want to take a long weekend, can work four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days.

Excessive absenteeism among employees takes a toll. By disciplining recalcitrant offenders and offering flexibility to good employees who need it, you can reduce unscheduled absenteeism and improve morale for everyone involved.

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