Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Patterns of Absenteeism among Government Employees

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Patterns of Absenteeism among Government Employees

Article excerpt

A. General

Absenteeism is a major concern of all managers and organizations, both private and public. Productivity is reduced to zero for the employee who is absent from the workplace. According to a survey conducted by the Bureau of National Affairs, 60 percent of all participating companies considered absenteeism to be their most serious personnel problem (BNA, 1985). Few would deny employees the right to be absent from work for legitimate reasons, however, unnecessary absence from work has produced staggering costs for organizations. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that on any scheduled work day, over three million employees will not appear for work. This represents an annual cost to the United States economy of over $26.4 billion dollars. Half of this figure has been estimated to represent paid sick leave (U.S. Department of Health, 1984-1986).

Although a large percentage of sick leave may be used by employees who are genuinely too ill to work, some sick leave involves choice on the part of the employee. We call this "elective sick leave." Elective sick leave would include sick leave due to slight headaches, minor menstrual discomfort, minor backaches, elective medical appointments, sick children at home, "mental health leave" and the like--cases where the employee could conceivably come to work, with no detriment on health, health of other employees or job productivity, but the employee elects not to do so. Elective sick leave would also include sick leave used for personal business or recreation purposes, where no discernible illness is involved.

While government managers should not discourage sick leave for genuine illness, they have a real opportunity for productivity improvement by motivating employees to use less elective sick leave. In June of 1986, the authors were appointed to study absenteeism at the Naval Ship Weapon Systems Engineering Station (NSWSES) in Port Hueneme, California. Part of the task was to review a Beneficial Suggestion submitted by employees of NSWSES, who suggested a bonus system for rewarding retention of sick leave (Fryman/Herting, 1986). The project included a review of the demographics and organizational environment in regards to sick leave usage, the development of findings and recommendations. In 1987, a follow-on study was performed to verify the findings of the 1986 efforts. This report represents a culmination of those efforts, combined with further research and analyses in the area of organizational stress as it is manifested in sick leave usage patterns.

B. Previous Research

A considerable amount of research has been conducted on absenteeism in general, with a limited number of studies addressing sick leave use (and abuse) in particular. Specifically, previous investigations of sick leave have focused primarily on methods of controlling and reducing "excessive" use of sick leave among different types of employees and organizations. While the majority of studies has dealt with private sector organizations, a few have addressed governmental or not-for-profit organizations (e.g. Los Angeles Times, 1986, Southern California Rapid Transit System; Smitz and Heneman, 1980, Municipal Employees; Tziner and Vardi, 1984, Social Workers; Shoemaker and Reid, 1980, Institutional Workers; etc.). The most relevant recent study of military organizations is a U.S. Army project on sick leave reduction (Sumser, 1984).

In the U.S. Army study, it was found that the use of sick leave among civilian employees had increased from an average of 64.9 hours per employee in 1975 to 73.9 hours in 1981, an increase of 15 percent. As a result of this increase, the Army instituted a program of positive reinforcement motivation which included what was essentially a uniform approach to educating supervisors and employees, a sick leave monitoring program, and a publicity campaign. The program resulted in a reduction of 11.6 sick leave hours by 1983 (to 62. …

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