More Workers Checked Out Because They’ Re Stressed Out, Even As Work-life Programs Showed Progress

Small Decrease in Absenteeism Offers Glimmer of Hope,
But Effective Solutions for Continued Decline are Slow in Coming

(RIVERWOODS, ILL., September 21, 1999) – More workers than ever before stayed home to combat stress or simply because they felt entitled to a day off, even though employers reported a small decline in the unscheduled absenteeism rate from an all-time high in 1998, according to the 1999 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey by CCH INCORPORATED (CCH). Yet, even as two out of five unscheduled absences were the result of worker stress and time-off policy abuse, human resources managers reported that programs capable of curbing unscheduled absenteeism and its cost (averaging $602 per employee annually) made slow progress in 1999.

The 1999 survey found that unscheduled absenteeism was down by 7 percent after skyrocketing to a seven-year high in 1998, but the reasons why employees aren’t showing up for work are more troubling than ever.

And, as workers clearly signal distress, employers have been slow to heed the warning signs. Even survey respondents who recognized the effectiveness of certain work-life and absence control programs have been somewhat sluggish to implement new practices.

CCH, a leading provider of employment and human resources law information, surveyed 305 human resources professionals from U.S. companies of all sizes across eight industry categories for the ninth annual survey. Results will be released Sept. 22, 1999, in the newsletter CCH Human Resources Management Ideas & Trends.

Why Employees Aren’t Working

While people were calling in at the last minute slightly less often than last year, only 21 percent were doing so because they were ill. This is a reversal from 1995, the first year the CCH survey began tracking reasons for absenteeism, when nearly one-half of all unplanned time off was attributed to Personal Illness. According to this year’s survey, Personal Illness and Family Issues tied as the two most common reasons for unscheduled absences, each at 21 percent. Personal Needs was also a top reason, accounting for 20 percent of unplanned time off.

But quickly gaining as reasons for unscheduled absences were Stress and Entitlement Mentality, each now accounting for 19 percent of all unscheduled absences. Of particular concern is Stress, which has seen a 316-percent increase as a reason for absenteeism since 1995.

One reason for added stress may be the ever-increasing number of hours Americans are working. A recent report by the International Labour Organization indicated that American workers are now putting in significantly more hours on the job annually (1,966) than their counterparts in other industrial countries. Additional cause for concern comes from other studies that indicate when employees who are suffering from stress are at work, they’re less likely to be productive.

"Employees are tapped out on hours put into work. It shouldn’t be a surprise that they’re stressed out as they attempt to juggle long hours and personal demands," said Nancy Kaylor, a human resources analyst for CCH’s Health and Human Resources Group. "But when stress reaches a level where workers aren’t working, this should signal an alarm to employers that they can only push so far.

"The good news is, companies can help their employees and themselves control this problem," Kaylor added. "Organizations serious about reversing the trend have to investigate the causes of stress for their workforce and implement programs to help employees deal with the many demands of their work and personal lives."

Disconnect Between Effective and Used Work-life Programs

Employers recognize certain work-life programs can be effective in controlling absenteeism. However, despite the significant cost of unscheduled absenteeism – as high as $602 per employee annually – many companies have been slow to implement these types of programs.

The CCH survey examined a variety of work-life programs and asked respondents to rank program effectiveness in controlling unexpected time off. On a scale of one to five, the top-ranked work-life programs for reducing unscheduled absences were Child Care Referral (3.64), Leave for School Functions (3.59), Flexible Scheduling (3.54), Emergency Child Care and Compressed Work Week (both at 3.23) and On-Site Child Care (3.15).

Yet, when it comes to what work-life programs employers actually have in place, Flexible Scheduling was the only top-rated program in use by more than one-half of employers. Specifically, Flexible Scheduling was used by 58 percent of organizations, while 29 percent indicated using Compressed Work Week and 26 percent authorized Leave for School Functions. Of the remaining top five work-life programs seen as effective in curbing unscheduled absences, Emergency Child Care was offered at 18 percent of companies, while On-Site Child Care and Child Care Referral were each available at just 16 percent of companies, according to the 1999 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey.

While ranked sixth in controlling absenteeism, the single most used work-life program was the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Offered by 61 percent of organizations, these programs typically provide employees access to mental health professionals for assistance in coping with a wide range of personal issues such as substance abuse and emotional problems.

"Not all work-life programs are appropriate for all companies. But organizations do need to have a good understanding of what programs will best support the needs of their employees and then weigh the investment of implementing these programs against the cost of not doing so," said Kaylor. "With this knowledge, many organizations may be surprised to learn just how costly ignoring work-life programs can be to their organizations."

Paid Time Off Seen as Most Effective Absence Control Program

In addition to work-life programs, HR professionals were asked to rank the effectiveness of specific absence control programs. Paid Time Off (PTO) continued to increase its lead as the most effective absence control program, according to the 1999 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, with an overall rating of 3.86 on a five-point scale. Following PTO in reported absence control effectiveness were Buy Back programs (3.55) and Disciplinary Action (3.46).

PTO programs provide employees with a bank of hours to be used for various purposes instead of traditional separate accounts for sick, vacation and personal time. Buy Back programs provide employees with compensation for not using all of their allotted time off.

"Paid-time off programs continue to be recognized as the most effective way to avoid unscheduled absences because employees are given greater control of how to use their days off," said Kaylor. "Under a traditional sick-day policy, an employee attempting to conserve vacation days is easily tempted to call in sick at the last minute for a personal appointment he may have known about well in advance."

Disciplinary-focused Programs Are Enacted

However, as with work-life programs, which absence control programs were perceived as most effective and which were actually in use aren’t necessarily the same.

While companies can use multiple forms of absence control programs, only 27 percent of organizations reported they had implemented a PTO program, up slightly from 25 percent last year. Buy Back programs were in use at 29 percent of organizations, also up from 23 percent in 1998. But by far, the single most used absence control program was Disciplinary Action, used by 77 percent of organizations.

However, gaining the most in popularity among absence control programs were No-Fault Systems, which were used at one-half of the organizations, up from just 39 percent last year. No-Fault Systems limit the number of unscheduled absences allowed, regardless of circumstances, and take specific disciplinary actions if that number is exceeded.

"While most companies have rules stating excessive absenteeism is grounds for discipline, many organizations leave the definition of what’s excessive up to individual managers. This can cause confusion as well as open the company up to potential liability in a discrimination lawsuit," said Kaylor.

"The no-fault approach defines a standard of attendance that is consistent for all employees throughout the company and applies this regardless of the circumstances for absences," added Kaylor. "This rigidity makes it more clear-cut and objective, but it is inflexible and does not accommodate any special circumstances."

Interestingly, among those organizations that indicated a reduction in unscheduled absenteeism this year, only 16 percent attributed this to employee Fear of Punishment, indicating that many organizations need to re-evaluate the effectiveness of discipline-based programs for curbing absenteeism.

Where Does Unused Time Off Go?

As part of the 1999 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, respondents also were asked what became of unused time off. Approximately one-third of the organizations (31 percent) indicated that employees could donate unused days off to a company bank, up from just 25 percent in 1998. Typically, this time off is then made available to individuals who require time due to a prolonged personal illness, to care for a seriously ill family member or other emergency.

More than three-fourths (77 percent) of organizations also allowed employees to carry over unused time (sick, vacation, personal and/or paid time off) for future use.

Steps to Reduce Unscheduled Absenteeism

The enclosed worksheet provides details on steps companies can take to reduce unscheduled absenteeism.

In conjunction with the 1999 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, CCH also is providing a close-up look at companies with successful programs for reducing unplanned absences. Case histories are enclosed.

About the Survey

The 1999 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, now in its ninth year, surveyed 305 human resources executives in U.S. companies and organizations of all sizes and across major industry segments. The 1999 survey reflects experiences of randomly polled organizations with an estimated total of 793,844 employees.

The organizations surveyed included employers in 46 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Eight business segments are represented including: Manufacturing, Finance/Banking, Health Care, Retail/Wholesale, Service, Utilities, Universities and Government.

Mean absence rates were calculated by dividing total paid-sick hours by total paid-productive hours. Scheduled absences, such as vacation, legal holidays, jury duty, personal time and bereavement leave were not included.

CCH Human Resources Management Ideas & Trends newsletter sponsored the survey, which was conducted by Michael Markowich, Ph.D., a member of the CCH Human Resources Management Advisory Board.

To Obtain a Copy of the Survey

Copies of CCH Human Resources Management Ideas & Trends newsletter containing the complete 1999 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey are available by calling 800-449-9525, and asking for offer number 06280001. Price is $29.95, plus tax, shipping and handling.


CCH INCORPORATED, Riverwoods, Ill., is a leading provider of tax and business law information and software for human resources, accounting, legal, securities, health care, banking and small business professionals. The company’s Health and Human Resources Group is among the nation’s most noted authoritative sources of employment law, including information on benefits, compensation, worker safety and human resources management.

Its publications and software for human resources professionals include Human Resources Management, Pension Plan Guide, Benefits Guide and Payroll Management Guide. CCH is a wholly owned subsidiary of Wolters Kluwer U.S. The CCH web site can be accessed at

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EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about the survey, contact: Leslie Bonacum at 847-267-7153 or Mary Dale Walters at 847-267-2038. Available to members of the press:

  • Charts and graphs depicting the full range of survey data
  • Historical survey data
  • Case histories
  • This release and related information are posted in the CCH Press Center: