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Are You Calling In Sick Too Much?

Wednesday, 9 Feb 2011 | 3:35 PM ET

There are a number of epidemics floating around Officeville right now: seasonal affectation disorder, snow fatigue and holiday deprivation (the lack of holidays this time of year).

Clerkenwell | Getty Images

It’s a perfect storm for another workplace epidemic: abuse of the company’s sick-day policy.

Ken Wisnefski, CEO of Internet-marketing firm WebiMax, said this season, he’s had about two to three employees call-in sick each week.

“I think in today’s society, people are very quick to call out,” Wisnefski said.

Some of the worst offenders? Young people — and Mondays.

“I notice the younger people on my staff call out a lot more than the more seasoned staff,” Wisnefski said. “Some of that may go along with the hours they keep outside of work!”

In a survey at this time last year, workforce-management firm Kronos found that 57 percent of salaried employees said they would take a sick day even if they weren’t really sick.

Greg Szymanski, who’s been in human resources for 15 years, said there are three types of people who call in sick: 1) the martyr (an employee who never calls in sick, even when s/he should, 2) the realist (an employee who calls in sick when s/he is sick) and 3) the cheater (calls in sick a lot, especially on Fridays and Mondays and maybe even around vacations).

Listen up, cheaters: If you think the boss doesn’t know when you’re calling in sick but you really aren’t — think again.

Elyse Segall, a busy CEO of PR Revolutionand mother of a five-month old, recently had an employee call in sick and show up the next day with a new hair color.

“While complaining to me that she still felt sick on Friday morning and asked to go home if she could leave early, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was leaving early for a nail appointment!” Segall said.

Calling in sick when you’re not may seem harmless, and even something you think you deserve, but the truth is, this type of unexpected absence costs companies millions each year. And if you start to abuse the policy, not only is your boss going to notice, he or she is going to start watching you more closely.

If you’re a superstar and do great work, the boss might cut you some slack for the occasional “mental health day” but if you’re a slacker and you pull a fake sick day, you’ve just put yourself squarely in the boss’s crosshairs. If you miss a goal or a deadline, or do something sloppy, they’ll snag you right away.

“The cheater will do him/herself in on a variety of performance-related fronts,” Szymanski said.

Martyrs, you’re not off the hook: You cost the company money, too!

A recent CareerBuilder survey found that three out of four people who are actually sick still go to work. And while as a society, we celebrate these corporate Cal Ripkins, with pats on the back and cries of “What a trooper this guy is!,” what they’re really doing is spreading their germs around the office and jeopardizing the health of their co-workers.

“An organization can be severely impacted by people coming to work when they’re sick. We know illness can spread from person to person causing entire work groups to be impacted. But less obvious is how job performance, organization, productivity, creativity and financial stability can all be affected,” said Dr. Mary Capelli-Schellpfeffer, medical director of Loyola University Health System Occupational Health Services.

Not only does it hurt productivity — it can hurt the company’s brand.

“If you contact a company and are greeted by someone coughing and sneezing, what is your initial reaction? It takes away from the integrity of the company brand and causes people to look at an organization in a way that was not intended,” Schellpfeffer said.

Another problem among the office martyrs: Calling in sick at the wrong times.

“They try and gut it out when they don’t feel well and by the time they feel better, they are too tired and grumpy to come to work,” said Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at DePauw Universityand a workplace consultant. “So they both spend more time away and are less productive when they are at work and sick,” he said.

“We do take a perverse pride in being miserable, working through illness and, in the end, being less productive than if we’d just stayed home,” Langerud said.

Many companies have tried to head off either abuse or underuse of the company sick policy by offering flexible work situations, like the ability to work from home.

In the U.K., a clever trend has emerged to curb sick-day abuse: “Duvet days.” Some employers offer one or two duvet days in addition to vacation and sick days. These are paid days off that employees can take on short notice to stay home and rest. The name implies an intent to stay home under the covers or “duvet.”

“As a CEO, I feel as long as you create a healthy working environment, it is less likely that employees will play ‘hooky’ unless needed,” Wisnefski said.

For those of you who work with a bunch of martyrs, here are a few tips from the pros:

  • Wipe down all surfaces, especially shared surfaces such as copy machines
  • Keep a 6-8 foot buffer between you and a sick person — especially at lunch time!
  • Go easy on the shaking hands — especially during cold and flu season
  • Keep food and beverages away from the work areas of sick people

And remember what your mother told you: Wash your hands often and I said stop touching that! You touch the desk of a sick person or touch something they’ve handled, then you grab a snack and put your hands to your mouth and voila! You’ve just completed the medical-textbook example of transferring an illness.

Hands where I can see ‘em, martyrs!

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  • Cindy Perman is a writer at CNBC.com, covering jobs, real estate, retirement and personal finance.

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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