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More And More 'Sick Days' Aren't

More Americans are calling out sick for reasons that have nothing to do with being ill, a study shows.

The survey by CCH Inc. found that a growing number of workers are taking sick days because of family issues, stress and personal reasons in what could be a sign of changing attitudes since last year's terrorist attacks, the company said.

The study found that the overall rate of unscheduled absences has remained about the same in recent years, but unscheduled days off for personal reasons increased from 20 percent two years ago to 24 percent this year. Absences due to stress jumped from 5 percent to 12 percent over the same period.

Only a third of unscheduled days off are because of illness, the study found.

"I think it's a change in mentality that says the job is important...but that I have another priority in my life and I have to fit that in," said Lori Rosen, an analyst with CCH, a Riverwoods, Ill.-based business information publisher. CCH has conducted the survey annually for 12 years.

Even though the absence rate is virtually unchanged, the cost to employers has risen sharply, the survey found. This year, such absences cost an average of $789 per employee for the year, companies reported. That is up from $610 in 2000 and $755 last year.

Employers were not surveyed about the reason for the increasing costs. CCH said it probably reflects rising health care insurance costs, and salaries and wages that had been rising steadily until the economy went into a downturn.

There may be other explanations as well. Employers have pushed in recent years to keep payrolls lean and improve productivity, leaving them with just enough workers to get business done.

That leaves companies less able to replace workers when they're absent, which drives up costs, said Helen Darling, president of the Washington Business Group on Health, an alliance of 175 large employers focused on health care costs.

When an employer is faced with a worker's unscheduled absence, managers also frequently have to call in a substitute, which also drives up costs.

That was long the case at Owen County State Bank in Spencer, Ind., where managers scrambled to call in backups when tellers and customer service representatives called in sick, said Ruth Jones, the bank's assistant vice president.

In 1998, the bank changed its policy. Instead of a set number of vacation days and sick days, employees now accrue paid time off, which they can use for any reason.

Workers who used to call in sick for personal reasons now schedule many of those days off in advance, Jones said. That arrangement has proven particularly useful since last September, as employees rethought their priorities outside work.

"Some were spending more time with their families, doing things with them — feeling more urgency to do things that they had always wanted to do, but put off," Jones said.

By Adam Geller

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