Sick leave and personal days are a form of employment benefit in the form of paid time off for illness or to deal with a personal/private matter. Since nearly everyone occasionally needs such time off, all businesses should have a clear policy established regarding sick leave and personal days. A sick day is fairly self-explanatory and can be used for everything from a common cold to a more serious illness that could require hospitalization or even surgery. Personal days can cover things like the illness of a child, a death in the family, jury duty, military obligations, or religious holidays. Most companies also allow vacation time for employees in addition to their set amount of sick leave and personal days.

Most companies allocate only a certain number of days for sick leave and personal time. For example, in a calendar year an employee could have five sick days and three personal days. If the employee fails to use them all in the given amount of time, the company must decide whether to allow employees to roll them over (that is, add or bank them to the number of sick days for the following year). The company could also reward the employee for not taking all available sick and personal days by offering cash bonuses, perks, or additional vacation days.

In an article for Business First, Dr. James D. Levy discussed employee attendance issues and described the three employee types that most businesses have to contend with. "On average, a small portion of employees will rarely, if ever, be absent because of illness. They pride themselves on being the iron man or iron woman and prove that people can, and do fulfill their responsibilities even when they don't feel well," he explained. "A second group, the great majority, will use a few sick days a year, well within most organizations' guidelines. The third group, usually only 5 percent or so, use their sick days plus most or all of their vacation time and additional lost time because of illness. It's this group that blurs the line between actual illness and the kind of 'not feeling well' that can be an excuse for poor performance or absences. Improvement in the attendance and performance of that small group would pay big dividends to organizations."

PROBLEMS WITH SICK LEAVE AND PERSONAL DAYS

From a business standpoint, the main problem that companies face when an employee takes time off because of an illness or personal matter is the loss of production. This in turn leads to a loss of money (in most instances, an employee is paid when they take a sick or personal day). The loss of productivity occurs simply because the work that the employee was supposed to do that particular day has to be done by one or more other employees or by a temporary employee. There is also the chance that the work could not get done at all.

The existence of sick and personal days also leaves the door wide open for them to be abused by employees who are less than honest about their health or personal lives. Most everyone has played hooky by calling in sick to work at one time or another, but those who make a habit of it are costing their employers a lot of money over the long run. In addition, the other employees who have to cover for them while they are taking time off may start to build up resentment if this situation occurs over and over again with the same individuals. This dip in morale can also hurt the company over a long period of time.

WAYS TO COMBAT ABUSE OF SICK LEAVE AND PERSONAL DAYS

There are many ways employers can fight back and make sure that their employees are not abusing the sick and personal days that they have been allotted. The first step would be to examine the existing policy and determine if it encourages unscheduled absenteeism. Management and supervisors can also force themselves to become more aware of their employees' habits and be on the lookout for things like stress or specific types of lifestyles that may force an employee to take more time off. Single parents or recent divorcees would fall into this category.

In some instances, the company could consider providing counseling or other assistance to employees who suffer from problems that cause them to miss work (including alcoholism, drug abuse, and psychological problems). In addition, many employers can combat an attendance problem before it gets out of hand simply by confronting the employee and discussing the reasons why he or she has missed so much work. An official attendance record could be kept just in case the employee disputes the employer's claims. Policies requiring an employee to file a report stating why they missed work can also be helpful in these types of situations. Also, since many employees spend a lot of time in the workplace, an employer can also reduce the chances of them getting sick in the first place by promoting a clean, safe, and healthy office environment.

Another concept that many employers have found useful in cutting down on unscheduled absences is known either as a paid leave bank (PLB) or a paid time off program (PTO). This program requires employees to consider all of their vacation, sick, and personal days as one unit to be used either for PTO or serious catastrophic situations. This system forces an employee who is abusing his or her sick day privileges to subtract them from vacation time or personal days if he or she continues to do so. Since the time that falls under the PTO plan is essentially the employee's time, they would be less likely to abuse it. This plan also helps to cut down on unscheduled absences that disrupt the workplace. On the positive side, a company is better able to control costs under this system while still allowing an employee to take additional time if something catastrophic happens. A reward system can also be built into this plan to encourage employees from taking unscheduled absences off.

If a company offers employment options like flex-time or the opportunity to work from home, they also stand the chance of cutting back on unscheduled absences. With a flexible schedule, employees can rearrange their work times to attend to a personal situation like taking their child to the doctor in the morning. After their personal business is taken care of, they can still come in and put in a full day at the office and not have to use a personal day. The option to work at home can also cut down on an unscheduled absence if employees are too sick to report to work but healthy enough to perform their duties. Many such duties can be done at home with the help of a laptop or other device that is useful in telecommuting. Another benefit to this option is that other employees will stand less of a chance of coming down with an illness if the employee who is already sick just works from home.

If constant abuse of sick and personal days continue to be a problem between a company and a particular employee, more drastic measures can be taken. One tried and true method requires that the employer insist on a note from a doctor before allowing an employee who has been out for more than several days to return to work. Policies regarding raises or other rewards can also be tied directly to employees' attendance records, therefore encouraging them not to take an unscheduled absence.

In serious circumstances, an employee can be fired for taking too many days off. The employer should make sure that they have a legitimate case against the employee in this instance because many situations are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and other laws that protect employees. If an employer is found to have wrongfully terminated an employee under one of these laws, it could stand to lose a considerable amount of money in a settlement.

But the best policies for reducing employee absenteeism have to do with creating a health workplace. Stephen Moir put it this way in an article on the subject that appeared in Personnel Today. "Staff wellbeing is about providing an environment that is conducive to people wanting to come to work and doing a good job. It is about having managers who manage well, and an organizational culture that is mature enough to recognize that a degree of absence is a natural side effect of employing real people. It is also about creating greater access to flexible working, and a broad range of benefits that motivate and encourage individuals. A truly successful approach to absence management is a holistic one that doesn't just do the hard stuff, but also thinks about the total package that you offer as an employer—friendly colleagues, access to learning opportunities, work-life balance, fair pay and rewards and so on."

SICK LEAVE AND PERSONAL DAY POLICIES FOR SMALL BUSINESSES

Small businesses that pay their employees by the hour often have no sick leave and personal day policies. In most cases, companies in this situation experience fewer cases of abuse of sick days off because when employees do not show up for work, then they do not get paid. Time clocks or official attendance ledgers are also used to let employers know exactly how many hours a particular employee works per day so that they can be paid accordingly. Of course, things like extended illnesses, a death in the family, or religious holidays can always force an employee to miss work.

For companies that employ salaried staff, a clear and defined policy for handling necessary sick days and personal days should be in place and followed carefully. In the case of an abuse of the system serious enough to motivate a termination, care must be taken. As Phillip M. Perry stated in Industrial Distribution: "If your business is small enough that you operate as the sole supervisor, you are still open to legal problems if you don't have a written policy followed to the letter. Employees who are terminated for excessive absenteeism will sue, claiming discrimination over those employees—possibly the ones who are more vital to your business success—who are absent just as often."

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Collis, Leighton. "The Hidden Costs of Sniffles and Sneezes." HR Magazine. July 1997.

Kaiser, Carl P. "What Do We Know About Employee Absence Behavior? An Interdisciplinary Interpretation." The Journal of Socio-Economics. January-February 1998.

Levy, Dr. James D. "Employers Can Make Sick Leave Less Debilitating." Business First-Columbus. 8 December 2000.

Moir, Stephen. "Tightening Sickness Absence Policies Is Not Necessarily the Answer." Personnel Today. 4 April 2006.

Perry, Phillip M. "Where's Jones? It's 9 A.M., Do You Know Where Your Employees Are?" Industrial Distribution. June 1996.