"Once every three or four months I get a case of office crazies. When it hits I've got to get away for a few hours, or I'll explode. I tell my secretary that I'm 'Going to inspect the job site,' which is our code phrase for 'If you need me, I'll be in the library or out in the park.' " --35-year-old Michigan computer specialist
"Twice a year--usually in the spring and in the fall--I give myself a day off. I'll call in sick, surround myself with magazines and read all day." --28-year-old arts program director
"About four years ago, I blew up at someone in the office with no provocation. I realized I'd been under a lot of stress, and I said to myself 'To hell with this,' got in my car and went out driving in the country." --61-year-old administrator
The business world generally sanctions two kinds of leave: "sick" and "annual." But there is a third kind almost everyone takes at one time or another.
At some companies it's called "sick-and-tired" leave. At others, "mental-health day," a "sanity break," or simply "playing hookey." But while the title may vary, the process is often the same.
"For personal reasons, often related to stress," says Atlanta corporate psychologist Neil P. Lewis, "a person has a strong need to step out of the regular work routine. They don't want to use up their vacation time, and they either can't, or won't, approach their boss for a little extra time off. So they take the easiest route and call in sick."
The incidence of "corporate hookey" is impossible to calculate, says Lewis, since there's no way to tell if a person is really sick or just faking. "But I think playing hookey once in a while is a basic human need. Everyone's got to have time to unwind and relax--that's why we have weekends and vacations."
In a fast-paced, economically-crunched society, people may find that a week or two of vacation each year "just doesn't make it."
"From a psychological standpoint," says Lewis, "it can be good for employes to be able to take a little extra time off at their discretion, to recharge their batteries, if it's done at a time that's not disrupting the organizational machine."
These breaks also can be good for the company, claims Benjamin Schneider, professor of organizational behavior at Michigan State University. "People need to have some autonomy over their own time. Company policies that recognize this can improve morale, cut down on unexcused absenteeism and reduce employe turnover."
Increasing numbers of companies are developing strategies for improving the quality of worklife, says Schneider, and are evolving policies to deal with the employe's occasional need for a break. One popular method is to sanction a limited number of such absences by granting "personal leave" at the supervisor's discretion, or by allowing a few yearly "floating holidays" employes can take whenever they choose.
Young and Rubicam advertising agency in New York started giving employes floating holidays about 10 years ago, says a company spokesperson, "to enable people to take off on Martin Luther King's birthday if they wanted to. This year we've decided to stay open on Good Friday, so employes are getting three floating holidays."
Company guidelines encourage employes "to use the holiday for an observance of their choice," even if it means celebrating National Pamper Yourself Day.
"Humans being what they are," she says, "there's nothing to keep someone from observing Spring by spending a day in the country. That's probably what I'll do."
Special seasonal breaks can be particularly valuable, says Washington creativity instructor David Oldfield. "Human beings are life forms, who need and want to be in touch with nature's cycles. Taking a short break to get a breath of warm spring air can be very reaffirming.
"It's an interruption to routine, an acknowledgement that we are more than what we do in the 9 to 5. It's a time to fill your tanks, so you can return to routine with a new receptivity--which is the raw stuff creativity is made of."
In deference to human nature and the weather, many European companies shut down for the month of August. An American version is the "summer schedule" policy at American Can Co., in Greenwich, Conn. Administrative and sales employes work longer hours Monday through Thursday and leave mid-day on Friday.
"Productivity seems to increase on Friday," says human resources administrator Bob Bogart. "Meetings are shorter and people work faster to get a full day's work done in four hours."
Tandem Computers throws parties Fridays at 4 p.m. throughout the year--complete with beer, soft drinks and snacks.
"The idea is to get people from all levels and groups to meet and talk," says spokesperson Pat Becker. (The California-based firm also gives all 3,200 employes an annual floating holiday, flextime, a six-week sabbatical every four years and maintains a swimming pool for employe use.)
"We have a very rigid recruitment and hiring procedure," says Becker, "to select people who are inner-driven and excited about work. Our turnover rate is 6.7 percent compared to the electronics industry average of 26 percent, and our per employe productivity rate is double the industry average."
A medical center that instituted "no-fault" sick leave reduced sick days by more than 30 percent and overtime hours by 54 percent, according to an article in Personnel Administrator. Designed to foil "Parkinson's Law of Sick Leave" (workers' absences tend to expand to fill the number of sick days allotted) the plan converted five of the annual 12 "sick days" into "paid leave" days. Employes could take them at their discretion or convert the days, unused, into cash. "Sick days" could be used only after all "paid leave" had been taken.
Giving employes the day off on birthdays "is becoming fairly common in manufacturing plants," says organizational psychologist Lewis. "It's written into some union contracts that employes get off on the first day of fishing season."
"The Cree Indians take a day off work to go hunting when goose season opens," says anthropologist Elliot Liebow, head of the Center for the study of Work and Mental Health at the National Institute of Mental Health. "Taking a few hours out to smell the flowers on the first warm day of spring may be the bureaucratic counterpart of that Indian ritual."
One of the best ways for managers to deal with spring-feverish employes, says Connecticut organizational psychologist Virginia Schein, is flextime. "When it's a beautiful day, you can take your three-mile jog in the early morning and work from 10 to 6, or get in your afternoon tennis game by working 7 to 3.
"That way, you meet your need to be outdoors, so when you're at work the company gets your full energy. Flextime has been making such tremendous strides in humanizing the workplace, that it's particularly distressing to find the current administration trying to turn back the clock."
Federal government aside, many current management trends acknowledge the human desire to have some control over work time, says Fred Pryor, president of the Human Productivity Institute. "In contrast with the old style of 'We want to watch you work hard,' more companies today want their employes to work smart and achieve intended objectives."
In a bureaucracy, where such flexibility is impossible, says Pryor, "People learn how to play the system. They feel unappreciated as individuals, so they figure out how to keep their jobs but work as little as possible."
This kind of intentional goofing off on the job cost the American economy $120 billion in 1981, according to an annual "time theft" study by Robert Half International, Inc., a New York recruitment firm. Half says employes "steal" an average of 4 hours and 18 minutes from their employers each week.
Mental-health breaks could contribute to this "time theft" or cure it, conjectures Pryor, "depending on the individual's personality. Some people find time off replenishes them and makes them more effective at work. For others, it could set in motion or perpetuate a habit of lack of achievement."
Those likely to abuse the breaks, he says, "are people with a low self-image who have no anticipation of achievement. They've lost hope for anything other than self-indulgence and will grab any opportunity to take off. For them it's not a refreshing renewal. It's just another escape from boredom or failure."
But in "workaholic Washington," the problem is more likely "those people who come in when they shouldn't," says NIMH's Liebow. "I'm impressed with the number of cars in the parking lot on days when everyone's excused except essential personnel.
"The number of people who decide they're essential is amazing. People here derive so much ego-gratification and status from their jobs that they won't take vacation, let alone a mental-health day."
Those who feel guilty about taking an occasional day off when they need it, he says, "may manufacture symptoms like a terrible headache or intestinal distress so they can feel justified calling in sick. Which is not to say their illness is any less real. We're finding that it's not so easy to separate the mind from the body.
"We live in a society where it's more acceptable to make yourself ill and call in sick, than to admit you just plain need a day off and call in well."