With the new year comes a renewed focus on the economic and productivity requirements of organizations in order for them to remain profitable and to grow. There is ever more work to get done, which often translates to more stress within the workplace. Therefore, naturally, workers place increasing value in their time away from the office – especially paid personal and vacation leave.

But what happens when these forms of leave become exhausted and employees still feel the need to escape the stress of the workplace? A recent study commissioned by job search giant CareerBuilder uncovered a startling answer: More and more, employees are taking sick leave when they’re not really sick. The CareerBuilder study found that almost one-third of workers did this in the last year. In fact, the study found that 10 percent of the workers polled have done it at least three times in the last year.

In an interview last month on National Public Radio (NPR), CareerBuilder Vice President Richard Castellini said that many workers have tended to save sick days until the end of the year – not necessarily to stretch out holiday leave to have more time with friends and family, but to get ready to host relatives in their homes, as well as to build in time to shop and relax. The perceived need to get some R&R, it turns out, ranked highest among the reasons that workers abuse sick leave, according to Castellini: 50 percent of workers, viewing sick days as an extension of paid leave, use the time just to relax. Many of us have seen this practice explained as “taking a mental health day.”

These mental health days quickly add up – and translate to lower morale and lost productivity. The October 2006 Unscheduled Absence Survey by CCH, a provider of HR and employment law information and services, found that while 23 percent of the 326 polled organizations reporting good or very good morale believe that unscheduled absenteeism is a serious problem, twice as many organizations reporting low morale – 46 percent – consider it to be a serious issue. The survey also put a figure on unscheduled absenteeism translating into increased direct payroll costs since 1999: up to $850,000 for large employers.

The CCH survey also pointed to the increased popularity of “paid leave banks,” consolidations of traditionally separated sick, vacation and personal leave into a central pool that employees can use for various purposes. With a 3 percent increase in the use of these banks in the last year, the survey found that they rank highest among effective absence control programs, which also include disciplinary action and bonuses. Paid leave banks can even curb presenteeism – the practice of employees going to work while sick. “If [an employee is] sick,” the survey’s press release stated, “she can take a day from the bank and stay home, without the fear of being reprimanded or running out of sick days.”

This notion touches upon the issues of privacy and employer-employee trust. If an employee takes a sick day and is somehow discovered to have been cheating the system, it’s not only the employee who could be disciplined (including being terminated) – the employee’s supervisor may also be faulted. “A manager can look foolish, having taken the employee’s word that he or she wasn’t feeling well when the person wasn’t ill at all,” Castellini told NPR. Thus, this one instance that doesn’t even concern an employee’s day-to-day responsibilities can have a huge impact on the trust foundation of an organization’s work culture.

To ensure a high level of trust, supervisors, managers and leaders should abide by the Golden Rule and treat people like they would like to be treated. If workers know that the reasons behind their time off will be scrutinized by their managers, they will continue to do secretive and potentially unproductive things like taking sick days when they’re well. Yet, if an atmosphere of trust and respect for privacy is in place, and it’s clear that the management doesn’t discriminate when it comes to employees’ time off, workers will largely respect and adhere to the paid time off system. As the CCH survey and others have shown, the use of paid sick banks can be an effective tool to cultivate an improved atmosphere of employee trust.

Yesterday was New Year’s Day. As small business leaders return to work and retake the reigns of the firm heading into 2007, they will naturally take stock both personally and professionally. They should ask themselves how their employees would like to start off the year – demoralized or encouraged. While the answer to that question may seem obvious, it will no doubt lead the business down a path toward greater productivity and, along with it, improved employee morale in the coming year.