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Absence: A Users Guide for Bosses and Employees

• December 16, 2013 • 1:01 PM


Tis the season to be gone from work. A leading researcher on going AWOL offers his observations about global customs, mild deviance, an improving job scene, and showing up at the office to spread viruses along with the holiday cheer.

It’s the end of the year, and thoughts turn to time off. In the Northern Hemisphere the perfect storm of holidays, hangovers, sickness, and bad weather keep people stuck at home or at least not stuck at work. In the Southern Hemisphere, meanwhile, maybe it’s good weather that creates a need to be, umm, sick. Plus, in many workplaces employees see their carefully hoarded use-it-or-lose-it sick days about to expire come New Year’s Day.

There are a few brave souls, of course, who show up and soldier on, especially when they’re sick—and infectious—spreading holiday cheer and viral detritus to their co-workers.

Gary Johns, a professor of management at Montreal’s Concordia University, has been studying absenteeism—and what he dubs presentee-ism—for decades. His interest, to be clear, is professional: “I think I’ve been a pretty good attender over the years.”

Johns’ industry (academe), and even his geography, suggest he would likely show up for work, as a recent paper he co-authored with Helena Addae and Kathleen Boies examining the legitimacy of being absent around the globe suggests. Mindset matters in absenteeism as much as aspirins taken. For every upright soul, there’s someone keen to either “rebel on the balance sheet” or “balance the inequity scoreboard” by taking every possible advantage of what they see as their due.

In a wide-ranging interview touching on much of his oeuvre on being AWOL, Johns discusses those national differences, how an improving economy may push up disappearances, and  how a smart leave policy could end what he calls “the Big Lie.”

How do you define absenteeism?
It’s what I call failure to report for scheduled work. That would exclude things like vacations or maternity leave and things like that, but it wouldn’t make a distinction between being sick and any other reason.

I’m sure absenteeism has been a concept as far back as when some Egyptian was too sick to push his block on a pyramid building site, but when did absenteeism become a recognized concern?
Absenteeism has been studied for many, many years. It’s one of the first organizational behavior variables or human resources variables that was studied formally. In the early 20s you saw the rise of personnel management. It’s been of interest since then, but every once in a while we see it elevated to the height of moral panic. The height of absenteeism research, speculation, and commentary was during World War II. My colleague Eric Patton and I studied every mention of absenteeism in the New York Times since 1851 until just recently, and we see this peak of articles mentioning absenteeism during World War II, when what is an innocuous behavior in many ways gets converted into a cause célèbre, with a lot of implications that being absent from work was tantamount to killing employees on the front—you were supposed to be at work to fulfill the war effort.

I think we’ve all worked somewhere where some people never take off and other people are almost never there.
A fair amount of absences are attributed to a smallish number of people. It’s sort of a “low base rate behavior,” as we call it.

How does it vary across economic conditions?
This has been well tracked. Whenever unemployment goes up, absences go down. This has been demonstrated at the firm level; this has been demonstrated at the state level; it’s been demonstrated at the national level. This is usually interpreted that when people get a little more nervous about the security of their jobs, they take up the implicit psychological contract that most of us hold: “Hey, you are supposed to go to work. This is part of your job.” And that gets a little more seriously adhered to whenever he economy takes a nosedive.

Assuming the economy is rebounding, can we expect to see a wave of absenteeism?
Not a wave, but you can expect it to go up. I’ve been doing some research with researchers from Italy, and we tracked in a particularly large organization in Italy over a period of years and it’s amazing how it started to decrease when the recession hit in 2008 and 2009. We saw that play out right before our eyes. So you would expect as the economy improves we would see absenteeism increase, and this is something employers should be aware of.

What about the difference between big firms and little companies? If I miss a day at Microsoft, probably no one misses me. But if I’m at Fred’s Lawnmower Shop, he knows I’m gone and it hurts.
Absenteeism in a lot of circumstances in fairly mundane, but it can have some very serious consequences. We had a case here in Canada where someone died in the hospital after waiting, waiting, and waiting in the emergency room, and it turns out in that particular shift there was an unusual amount of absenteeism at that time. … We do see some tendency for people to be sensitive to those kinds of issues when making judgments about how legitimate the absence behavior is or maybe how rigorously it should be enforced or punished.

Is there a moral component to the argument?
Absence—we have research on this—is considered mildly deviant behavior.

This is not the most serious work behavior, but most people, because of their contract, do have this negative view—at least toward the absenteeism of other people. People tend to be disinclined in the abstract toward absence, but they do look at the particular situations in any given case. This is recognized as a form of what you might call “time theft,” and from that point of view it does become an ethical or moral issue.

How you discovered what might be called “Protestant work ethic” in the workplace, something that pushes people to soldier on?
I would say we do have a bit of evidence that the work ethic influences people’s attendance behavior. It also influences their judgments about how legitimate people’s absences are. People to whom work is central are disinclined to be very favorable toward absence. People who have this one-dimensional work ethic are inclined to see absenteeism as illegitimate behavior.

What tips the scale of two people with a back problem, one might choose to go absent and the other one might choose to tough it out and maybe be somewhat less productive at work but less productive is still more productive than zip. On the margin you might think people with more work ethic, people more happy with their jobs, would be more likely to make that extra effort.

I have a video clip from a talk I give and it’s from Codral, which is an over-the-counter remedy for what ails you from Australia, and its exact theme is “soldier on.” The employee wakes up with whatever problem he has and takes some Codral then soldiers on and marches out to work. Indeed, this is underlying a lot of presentee-ism, the specter of drug companies that would like to make claims for workplace productivity for pharmaceutical products.

Absence and the Academy

Gary Johns and his colleagues have produced quite a large body of research on absenteeism. Here’s a taste drawn from several papers written or co-written by Johns.

Absence Shaming
The rhetoric concerning individual punishment was also particularly strong during this period. For example, ‘Swastika “Honor” for Absenteeism’ (17 February 1943) explained that a plant in New Britain, Connecticut was giving a weekly Hitler plaque inscribed with a swastika to the crew with the poorest attendance record, while ‘Gets 6 Months for Absenteeism’ (13 January 1945) described how a war plant worker received a six-month jail sentence for flagrant absenteeism.

“Context and the Social Representation of Absenteeism: Absence in the Popular Press and in Academic Research,” Human Relations, January 2012

It’s Different for Women
[R]egardless of individual situations, absenteeism by women in the aggregate may be higher than that of men due to differing social expectations concerning attendance. Overall, generally held stereotypes about women may create an absence culture in which absenteeism by women is more legitimate and expected, leading to higher actual absenteeism.

“Women’s Absenteeism in the Popular Press: Evidence for a Gender-Specific Absence Culture,” Human Relations, November 2007

It’s Not Me, It’s You
In both the East and the West, people underestimate their own absence behavior and see their attendance as superior to that of their work colleagues. These negative connotations do not deny individual differences in the perceived legitimacy of absenteeism, but they do again suggest that people may be socially sensitive to how others view the behavior, thus setting the stage for social influence.

“National Culture and Perceptions of Absence Legitimacy,” Voluntary Employee Withdrawal and Inattendance, 2002

Know When to Fold
These examples underscore the importance of employers to understand and take into consideration contextual issues that lead to perceptions of absence legitimacy among their employees. Being cognizant of such factors will allow companies to formulate mutually beneficial strategies to control the behavior. Indeed, in addition to reduced absenteeism those companies which provided employees access to watch the World Cup games at work also increased employees’ perceived organizational support and fostered team spirit among them.

“The Legitimacy of Absenteeism From Work: A Nine Nation Exploratory Study,” Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, 2013

Your recent paper with Helena Mensah Addae looks at the legitimacy of absenteeism is nine nations. What can you say about national differences? I realize my perception of an Italian worker may be different from an Italian worker’s own perception, but there are some well-established stereotypes, like the Japanese salaryman working himself to death.
Countries do differ a lot—but these differences exist within countries, too. Countries do differ in how central work is. Japan, for instance, has a very high work centrality, and we do hear these stories of Japanese “working themselves to death” and indeed, it is a stereotype and a stereotype that’s borne out by research.

The U.S. is one of the lower countries. People tend to lose three and a fraction days a year. It varies, of course, across industries. In Canada it’s a little higher. I don’t know why that is, but a little of it could be the climate. These are relatively low numbers.

Countries also differ in how much people feel more or less in control of their own lives. In some countries, like the U.S., people feel relatively in control. In some countries, usually where economies are poor, people feel less in control because infrastructure is weak, because they’re living from day to day. Views of time also differ, some countries are more multi-tasking than others. Gender-role differentiation is another thing we studied; in some countries it’s very rigid that women do this and men do that. In other countries, this boundary is more permeable, and women can substitute for men.

You cited the difference between Netherlands and Germany, and in our conversation the difference between Canada and the U.S. They seem to be relatively close cultures….
In the case of Germany and the Netherlands, it’s really striking the many-days difference between the two countries. Now this is due to a complex of reasons, this isn’t about national psyche. There’s lots of issue about infrastructure and laws regarding employment, but one likes to think that those differences emanate from inherent differences in the culture. But they share a border—I had to double check my math when I saw that data.

Are there any countries where things are really crazy?
No, I think you’ll find that most people in most places get to work. I think this a relatively low base rate behavior, but whenever you multiply relatively small differences by millions of people you begin to see the kind of impact this might have on an economy or a social system. In our study, the most accepting country of absence–in the abstract—was Japan. In the abstract, the Japanese say no absence is illegitimate. On the other hand, India and Pakistan were countries where people were much more accepting of absence.

In general, if you said absence was illegitimate, you also felt people should be accountable. The Japanese were kind of the exception to this rule: they were very much against absence but they were very liberal when it came to holding people to account. I did not really understand this, so I talked to a couple of people I know who are experts on Japan, and they said, “Yeah, it’s a couple of things. Accountability requires singling out people, and this is a highly collective society where people don’t get singled out. And absence is considered not to be legitimate, so if you engaged in it, you must have had a good reason to do it.’

What drives absenteeism?
One of the reasons I do like to study absences is you have this innocuous behavior that all looks the same and if it doesn’t have a hundred causes, it’s got a lot of causes. Broadly, things such as how fairly people feel they’re treated in organization, how happy they are in their job. Job satisfaction is not a strong correlate in any means, because organizations are designed to get you to come to work whether you’re happy or not, but if you’re badly treated, problems with supervisors, problems with colleagues, this can stimulate absenteeism. Certainly child care and elder care are issues, those infrastructure kind of phenomena. Particularly in our study, lack of social support—where you are likely to find that in poorer countries. Health plays a certain role, of course, but there are large individual differences in how you and I might have the same malady and yet I see it as a reason to go to work and you see it as a reason to book off for three days.

What about sports, special events?
World Cup Fever is one that my first author, Helena Addae, knows about. She’s from Trinidad, and she recounts the excitement over the World Cup and how people have to work around that. It’s like deer-hunting season in Pennsylvania—a lot of companies just give up and give off the first day of hunting season.

I’m a big fan of trying to manage absence right at the interface—controlling variance close to the source, rather than far away with abstract policies. I’m in favor of managers taking a proactive stance, a more indigenous management of the behavior.

What would be a good absenteeism policy?
First of all, you need to connote that we expect you to be at work. We want people to be at work, your job is vital, we want you to be here. One of the biggest correlates of absence is the existence of absence policies; in general, policies that discourage absence work. I also believe in allowing this indigenous control by first-level managers who are more sensitive to this kind of information. I tell organizations you should be tracking and managing attendance rather than waiting for it to get to the point where all of a sudden you realize people are missing and you didn’t have any good monitoring system.

The members of work groups have powerful control over the attendance of their peers, and this isn’t used well enough to manage absence. We wait until they’re absent enough, we wait until they cross some line, and then, bang, we crack down on them. I’m in favor of a lot more active kind of control. I’ve heard of situations where workers can trade sick days so that they know if somebody has got some real problem they can give up a sick day or two to that person.

I’m also doing a lot of thinking now about presentee-ism—going to work ill—getting onto the table the discussion of when you shouldn’t come to work.

What about use-it-or-lose-it policies?
I don’t like those at all. Sick days are supposed to be for sickness. It should not be bankable. What I do like is something that gives employees a small, kind of reasonable attendance reward, something that acknowledges good attendance. Some managers don’t like that because of that contract I mentioned before—“Hey, you’re supposed to come to work!” Yeah, but we would like to reinforce that behavior much more than this use-it-or lose-it kind of thing. I know the water is under the bridge now, the equation of moving this absenteeism or sick leave, seeing it as a kind of money-able benefit. I know it is, but once you get that mentality, then it’s like, “It’s mine. It was part of the collective agreement, and I’m going to use it.” I would just as soon have systems that do away with the distinction between sick and not sick and say, “Here, you have so many days a year and you can use them how you want.” It would stop the Big Lie.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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