Will Time Off Be the Next Thing To Go? A ‘Flexible’ Alternative
So many websites, organizations, foundations, and consulting firms have been devoted to the issue of wellness in the workplace. The key assumption is that wellness drives so many costs for an organization that the employer needs to make workers healthier.
Yet, a report that will soon be published by Mercer indicates that healthcare costs are not the primary issue that employers are facing. Instead, planned and unplanned absences may cost as much as 36% of total payroll, according to a briefing published by the Society for Human Resource Management. That means absenteeism would be costing an organization about twice as much as healthcare, with the bulk of those costs coming from planned absences, such as vacation and other scheduled time off.
So, what does this mean? Healthcare costs organizations millions of dollars and these organizations respond by relying on plans that cost employees more, incentives to encourage healthier behaviors, and penalties for unhealthy behaviors. If absenteeism is costing them twice as much, what will the response be, especially given that millions of Americans do not even use the full amount of their time off? Will we see penalties for taking time off, incentives to avoid taking vacations, and recognition for perfect attendance? If so, what will that do to employee stress and consequently to employee health?
Perhaps the answer lies with workplace flexibility. Offering more flexible options for when, where, and how employees interact with their work responsibilities can allow employees the flexibility to have some time off without negatively impacting organizational performance. Although I am not advocating a complete trading of the physical office for the virtual office, which was recently recommended in Wired Magazine, there should be a greater emphasis on workplace flexibility within an organization’s culture. This would permit employees to take time out from work, without an all-or-nothing approach. Given that most Americans don’t use their entire vacation time and tend to “dig themselves out” afterward anyway, such an approach would seem to represent a win-win for the organization and its employees.
However, this approach does not come without accountability and responsibility. An organization has to be willing to allow employees the real flexibility they need to get away from work, manage non-work demands, and yet maintain productivity. This means providing managerial support for flexibility, as well as working out arrangements that will be genuinely beneficial for both the organization and the employee. Employees, on the other hand, would have to learn to manage themselves outside of the workplace in a way that allowed them to maintain their productivity in the face of other distractions. So, both the organization and employees would need to learn a new style of the work-employee interface. The question is: Will that happen?
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