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Using your sick days as mental health days

Allan Johnson Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – When Carol Mullen was a cashier for the old Venture retail store back in the mid-1980s, she was invited to a Fourth of July picnic that she just had to attend. Problem was, Mullen was scheduled to work.

The 19-year-old made a grown-up decision: She called in sick.

“Any party at 19 is always worth it,” laughed Mullen, now a 38-year-old nurse at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill. “I had better things to do than deal with crabby customers in the cashier line.”

Mullen was like many people who use sick days for something other than being sick. You have errands to run, need to take a family member somewhere or simply want a day to recharge your batteries. Some might call it taking a mental health day.

But because you will decide to take this day off at the spur of the moment, and you can’t suddenly schedule a vacation day, you will come up with some sort of “ailment,” call the supervisor and invoke a sick day – maybe faking a hoarse voice in the process.

“Some people feel like, ‘I’m an adult. … I don’t want to have to cough into the phone to prove that I’m sick,’ ” workplace expert Liz Ryan said. “If you can’t respect that today’s the day when you won’t be seeing me … I’m just going to go ahead and say I’m sick. Because that’s code today for ‘I’m not coming in.’ “

This type of drama appears to be on the rise. CCH Inc., a provider of employment law information, conducted a survey in 2004 that found the rate of unscheduled absenteeism was at a five-year high of 2.4 percent. That was up 1.9 percent from 2003.

Only 38 percent of unscheduled absences were because of personal illness in 2004.

“You couldn’t even take a half-day to get things done without going through all kinds of grief, so you would call in sick because you had no choice,” said Diane Carlin, 57, of Green Bay, Wis., about a recruitment firm she worked for several years ago.

Lisa Hoffer of Elmhurst, Ill., said that “once in a blue moon” she needs a sick day at a company where she works as a special-events planner.

“It’s usually I need to stay home with my kids or something like that. It’s never anything terribly selfish,” said Hoffer, 40. “Afterward, I feel guilty and come in on my day off anyway.” Hoffer stressed that when she has called in, “I don’t think I’ve ever made anything up.”

Eighteen percent of those who didn’t report to work did it because of personal needs, according to the CCH survey of more than 300 human-resources executives. Ten percent cited “entitlement mentality,” which, according to Paul Gibson of CCH, means those employees felt it was their right to use that sick day as they saw fit.

Mine, all mine

Explained Gibson, CCH’s vice president of business compliance products: “Entitlement mentality refers to the fact that in many cases, companies have sick days that you’re only supposed to use if you’re sick. So they give you seven sick days, and (employees say), ‘Even though I’m not sick all seven days, I’m going to use them up because they’re mine.’ “

Margaret Morford, president of HR Edge Inc., a Nashville-based training and management development consulting company, noted how some believe they’ve “earned” the sick days their companies give them, and “if (they) don’t call in sick, (they) can’t use them.”

Morford said people are taking unscheduled days off because they are simply working harder and longer. Voice mail, e-mail, cell phones and other technology also allow people to be plugged in to work more than ever.

“People are getting burned out,” she said. “And I recommend to managers: You need to keep your eye on people, and sometimes you just need to give them a mental health day, or at least offer them the option.”

For some, the company line is that unused sick days can’t carry over from one year to the next. So there is an urgency not to waste those days.

“Any company today, in 2005, that still has a sick-day policy (where) if you don’t use them, you lose them … then they’re just fooling themselves if they think people aren’t going to take the days,” said Ryan, chief executive of WorldWIT, an online organization for businesswomen she created in Chicago in 1999.

“With the loyalty from the corporate side completely gone,” Ryan added, “how can you really expect loyalty from the employee side?”

Carlin, who is between jobs, felt justified in making up a story when she needed a day off from the recruitment company she worked for, mainly because she said her supervisor was a “mistrustful” type who wasn’t the best manager.

“You feel guilty and you hate what you had to do,” Carlin said.

Carlin saved herself some stress by not working at that company anymore, Ryan said.

“If you’re in a company where you feel that you have to pretend to be sick to get a day off that you otherwise need and deserve, it’s not a healthy place for you to be,” she explained.

Dip into the pool

Gibson said more companies are combining sick days with vacation and personal days, to create an overall pool of days that an employee can take for whatever reason, including illnesses real or imagined.

“That really gets around the problem of people having to call in to use a ‘sick day,’ even though they’re not sick,” he said.

Mullen has this at Good Samaritan Hospital, so “if you need a mental health day, and because it’s stressful, and you have the time to take off when you have those sick days or those personal days to take off, then you can be that much better for your employer the next day,” she said.

Morford said that if you do call in sick, it might be advisable to act as if you are.

“More people get spotted out and about, and that’s a bad thing,” she said, laughing.

For Mullen, who skipped work at Venture to attend the Fourth of July picnic, it wasn’t a laughing matter.

Mullen went to the party, but “little did I know that the lead cashier, who was scheduled that day also, lived across the street and about three houses down from the party I was at,” she said. “I was sitting outside on the front lawn when she pulled into her driveway after her long day at work.

“I ran into the back yard and did not go near the front yard until it was time to go home,” Mullen said. “I was never caught.”

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