Higher jobless rates, less absences by unhappy workers

NEW YORK (Reuters) - High unemployment brings lower absenteeism at the workplace but in what may not be great news for employers, the drop in absences is largely among the most unhappy workers, a study said on Thursday.

A man is seen at a stock exchange office in a November 13, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

The most dissatisfied workers have the most absences when times are good, and they go to work more often when times are bad, said the study led by John Hausknecht, a professor of human resources at Cornell University.

“When unemployment is low, basically that’s when you’ll find the dissatisfied are taking extra days off because they can feel like they can afford to,” he said. But when other jobs are scarce, “those people are showing up more for work.”

“It’s not exactly what an employer would want to see,” he said.

Among highly satisfied workers, however, the study found unemployment rates, high or low, have the least affect. Their absenteeism rates are consistently low, it said.

“The good news is, if you’ve got a committed and satisfied workforce, it really doesn’t matter what the economy is doing. Those people tend not to be taking days off,” Hausknecht said.

The study looked at 12,500 employees of a U.S. state department of transportation from 1998 to 2003. Its findings are likely to hold true in today’s economic climate, Hausknecht said.

The study also found worker absenteeism creeps up over time, at a pace of about 5 percent a year over five years.

Absenteeism rates rise seemingly because workers tend to exaggerate other workers’ absences and then use those perceptions to legitimize their own absences, Hausknecht said.

At a company with 12,500 employees, the cumulative cost due to such rising absenteeism would be more than $6 million a year after five years, it said.

The researchers used employee surveys to rate job satisfaction. They studied absences of one or two days, because absences of three or more days required a note from a doctor and were assumed to be medically based.

The study was published in the December/January issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

Editing by Michelle Nichols