CHICAGO—Standing outside Gate D at Wrigley Field on a recent weekday afternoon, Derek, a financial consultant who did not give his last name, was trying to be incognito in a polo shirt, shorts and sunglasses.
Derek was supposed to be at work. He told his boss that he needed a day because he was broken up over a beloved colleague's resignation. It was just an excuse to play hooky.
"I just stepped off for the day," said Derek, while waiting to join the near-sellout crowd.
Employees calling in sick or making up excuses to get out of work is nothing new.
But as employee ranks remain thin because of layoffs and a reluctance to hire, unplanned employee absences can be costly, affecting productivity and a company's bottom line.
Absences can cost up to $60,000 a year for small businesses and for large employers as much as $3.6 million a year, according to a survey by CCH Inc., a human resources provider based in Riverwoods, Ill.
"For every employee who doesn't show up, the employer has to figure out how their work will get done," said Lori Rosen, a CCH workplace analyst. "If someone has to work overtime, or you have to call in a temp to do that person's job, it costs."
Costs for unplanned absences climbed last year to an all-time high of $789 per employee, up from $755 in 2001, according to the CCH survey. Yet the number of employees taking unscheduled work absences has declined in recent years, the survey showed.
"I think more people are not calling in sick because of the economy, due to the fact they are more concerned about their jobs," said John Dooney, a human resources expert and consultant to the Society for Human Resource Management.
When the weather's warm and the kids are out of school and something always seems more fun to do than work, some workers allow themselves the occasional "mental health day."
Mondays and Fridays are especially popular because they add up to a long weekend.
Excuses range from the wacky to the morbid. Dooney said he worked with a client who discovered that a worker twice reported having to take off because her father had died.
For workers who remain, unscheduled absences can lead to increased workloads and stress, said Laura Stack, founder of TheProductivityPro.com and a personal coach whose aim is to help people leave the office earlier.
"I think a lot of people are calling in sick not because they're ill physically, but because they're sick of the place, and they need a day to decompress," Stack said.
Revising the system
Such absences are "a call to employers for more flexibility and not focusing so much on butts in seats but on results," she said. "That requires a cultural change."
To reduce the number of unscheduled absences, some employers are changing rules. Popular today are paid-time-off plans, in which employees accumulate hours of paid time away from work for sickness, vacation or personal reasons.
"It doesn't really matter why you're not there. It's your time. The only remaining requirement of the employee is to let [the employer] know in advance," Rosen said.
Other employers are allowing employees to work 10-hour days, four days a week, for example, automatically giving them a three-day weekend.