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In America more than elsewhere, work absences create stress and lower morale

Ferris got away with it. But your boss will probably notice. (Paramount Home Entertainment)
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A new report released Monday shows that it costs American companies a lot of money when employees take time off of work. Employers spend about 22 percent of their total payroll on vacationing, sick and otherwise absent workers, according to the survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

The expense itself may not be too surprising, but what is interesting about the survey of 1,280 H.R. professionals is that it showed how differently Americans view "unplanned absences," compared with their peers in other countries. The survey defined such absences as those times when you're sick, say you're sick, or have to stay home to meet with the furnace repair guy, for example.

Sixty-one percent of the Americans who answered the survey, which was done by SHRM but commissioned by software company Kronos, said unplanned absences "increase stress" for others in the workplace. In Australia and Europe, those numbers were just 54 percent and 51 percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, 48 percent of the U.S. respondents said unplanned absences hurt morale at the office, compared with just 36 percent in Europe and 31 percent in Australia.

Evren Esen, SHRM's director of survey programs, said the difference could be attributable to cultural norms in the United States, where many workers don't feel they can use all their vacation time and where there's no federally mandated paid sick leave. "There should not be a stigma for taking your vacation, but it’s evolved into that," Esen said. "And I think that’s [why] there may be a little bit of resentment or stress when others are out. 'You’re taking vacation, or you're sick, but I’m here and I have to deal with this.' In other cultures, it’s more of an expectation that you take your time."

Other regions also spend far more of their payrolls on costs associated with worker absences. According to the report, the total expense of time off comprises about 34 percent of payroll costs in Australia and about 37 percent in Europe, compared with roughly 22 percent in the United States. The difference, as one would expect, is likely due to the much higher mandated leave time and more generous time-off policies in other countries. American H.R. managers were also the respondents most likely to say that productivity losses result when workers are out sick or on leave.

Finally, the survey asked American H.R. professionals if they notice more unplanned absences on Mondays or Fridays, or before public holidays or national sporting events. A full 72 percent said they had picked up on a trend of employees coincidentally calling in sick those days. "It’s a convenient way of extending your weekend," Esen said. "I think these data show it’s a pattern that organizations are definitely noticing."

Should paid sick leave be mandated for all employees?

The catch of having an unlimited vacation policy