The survey of more than 1.3 million workers shows that family issues, personal needs, and stress were the rationale for taking more than half of all sick days last year. Only 32 percent of sick days were actually used for personal illness.
"We have reality-based TV programming these days," said Nancy Kaylor, a workplace analyst for CCH, the human resources information company that did the survey. "Perhaps this signals the need for reality-based management when it comes to sick time."
The Union-Tribune concluded that workers seem to have needs that their employers don't address.
"When workers don't have the flexibility they need in their work schedules, they find a way to get it," Kaylor told the newspaper.
Sometimes, workers lie to get what they need. If an employer's sick-time policy doesn't allow for taking care of a sick child or an elder-care need, employees bend the rules and take sick days anyway. For some, there is no choice.
"Why would you even force workers into that situation?" asked Sheryl Routh, human resources director for San Diego-based Wingcast. "They shouldn't have to do that."
Wingcast, a startup that is developing on-board navigational, security and safety systems for autos, is one of an increasing number of companies to offer paid-time-off banks to their workers.
Each Wingcast employee is granted a bank of four weeks of vacation and sick time to be used for whatever reason or need they choose. Workers are simply asked to manage their time effectively.
"It just makes sense to us," Routh said. "We want people to be responsible for their jobs. We're more interested in them meeting their project deadlines than what they are doing on a particular day.
"If they need time off during the day for a dental appointment or child-care issue, we want them to have the flexibility to take it without worrying what the company will think."
The CCH survey found that 21 percent of sick days last year were used for family issues, 19 percent for stress, 11 percent for personal needs, 9 percent for personal entitlement and 8 percent for transportation or weather problems.
Sick time is an employee benefit that employers grant for two reasons: it allows an employee to be paid when unable to work while ill, and it shields other workers from being exposed to contagious illnesses.
Kaylor said many employers have been unwilling to address legitimate time issues that have multiplied with more two-income households and single-parent families.
"There is a significant time crunch," she said. "Family issues, child-care problems and elder-care situations seem to affect nearly everyone. And when faced with a choice between work and taking care of a family need, there's no choice. Family will win every time."
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San Diego Union-Tribune speculates that it might be high time for American companies to review their sick-time policies, given a recent survey that found two of every three sick days used by American workers last year were for something other than illness.