Survey: Workers Frequently Call in Sick When They Aren’t Sick at All

Photo by Dreamstime
Photo by Dreamstime

Just about every manager and HR pro on the planet knows that many employees who call in for work sick aren’t really sick at all.

Back when I was a newspaper editor in Honolulu, for example, I noticed a curious thing when the waves hit optimal surfing conditions on Oahu: I had a large percentage of my news staff call in sick. And, oddly enough, those who were sick were also the big surfers on the staff. Hmmm — I wonder what that was about?

You’ve probably faced that “are-they-really-sick-or-not?” issue too, but how big a problem is it anyway? Well, here comes your answer, courtesy of a new survey conducted by Harris Interactive for The Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc. The Kronos Global Absence survey “looks at which regions have the highest rates of absenteeism, how the rest of the workforce is affected when employees call in sick, and what employers can do to better manage the problem.”

Some of the findings

  • Significant numbers of employees around the world admit to calling in sick to work when they were not actually sick. China led all surveyed regions with 71 percent of employees admitting to calling in sick when they were not actually sick, while France had the smallest number with only 16 percent. Other countries polled included India with 62 percent, Australia with 58 percent, Canada with 52 percent, the U.S. with 52 percent, the U.K. with 43 percent, and Mexico with 38 percent.
  • When asked why they have ever called in sick when they were not actually sick, the overwhelming response in every region was that employees felt stressed/needed a day off. Some 71 percent gave this reason in Canada, 62 percent in the U.S., and 60 percent in China. Other reasons selected included needing to take care of a sick child, having too heavy a workload, and not having enough paid leave.
  • How did employees actually spend their “sick” day off? The top two activities in every region except India and Mexico were staying home and watching TV or staying in bed. In India and Mexico, staying home and watching TV was the top choice, but meeting up with friends and relatives was next on the list.
  • When asked what their employers could do to prevent workers from calling in sick to work when they weren’t actually sick, the top response in every region but France was to offer employees the opportunity to work flexible hours. In France, employees said that summer Fridays – being offered the opportunity to take Fridays in the summer off and make them up during the week – would make the biggest impact. Being given the opportunity to work from home, and the opportunity to take unpaid leave, also rated high among employees around the world.
  • A majority of employees in all regions said that they were negatively impacted when co-workers called in sick, with the top reason being that they had to take on the work or shift of the missing employee. The second reason in every region, except Mexico and France, was an increase in stress. Employees in Mexico and France don’t get stressed as much, but they do worry about things getting overlooked or forgotten.
  • Unscheduled absences, like when an employee calls in sick at the last minute, cost organizations 8.7 percent of payroll each year (as discussed in a survey last year that was conducted by Mercer and sponsored by Kronos).

Is flex work an answer?

“This survey provides a fascinating look at the issue of absenteeism around the world,” says Joyce Maroney, director of The Workforce Institute at Kronos, in a press release about the research. “It is interesting to see both the many similarities between regions and the marked differences also. Employers everywhere can learn from this survey – about the problem of absenteeism and the possible fixes – from providing more flexible work arrangements, where possible, to enabling employees to work from home.”

The Kronos Global Absence survey was conducted online within the U.S. between July 19-21, 2011 among 2,293 adults (aged 18 and over), of whom 1,209 are employed full-time and/or part time; within Canada between July 18-25, 2011 among 1,006 adults (aged 18 and older) of whom 538 are employed full-time and/or part-time; and within the U.K., France, Australia, Mexico, China, and India between July 19-27, 2011 among 6,153 adults (aged 16 and older) of whom 4,860 are employed full-time and/or part-time, by Harris Interactive on behalf of Kronos via its Quick Query omnibus product, the Harris Decima Canada online omnibus, and the Global omnibus product.

There’s a lot more on how Harris conducted this global survey, if you’re interested, so click here for all of that.

I find the notion of employees calling in sick when they are not really sick — a pretty widespread issue, as this survey points out — to be yet another reason for organizations to move to PTO (paid time off) systems where people just get a chunk of days over the course of a year that they can use for vacation, illness, or even the occasional “I-just-need-to-get-out of-here” day off.

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A case for moving to PTO banks

Former JetBlue HR chief Ann Rhoades made a case for the PTO system in her recent book, and as someone who has worked under both systems, take it from me that the PTO approach not only makes more sense but also cuts down on most of the taking a sick day game playing.

Kronos, the company that sponsored this survey, knows a lot about sick days because the company makes time and attendance, scheduling, absence management, and HR/payroll systems for thousands of organizations around the globe, including more than half of the Fortune 1000. And full disclosure: I’m an advisory board member of The Workforce Institute at Kronos, although I had absolutely nothing to do with this survey.

Is absence and sick time management a problem in your organization? If it is, this survey may give you some clues why.

And, it may make the most compelling case of all for why you might consider moving to a PTO bank so you can start cutting down on a lot of the silly nonsense workers get into when sick days are part of the benefit mix (and check out the cool video for more perspective on this).

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.