The role of workplace absence as an organizational mechanism in predicting employee alcohol and drug disorders

Debra L. Troxell Reynolds, The University of Texas School of Public Health


Background. EAP programs for airline pilots in companies with a well developed recovery management program are known to reduce pilot absenteeism following treatment. Given the costs and safety consequences to society, it is important to identify pilots who may be experiencing an AOD disorder to get them into treatment. Hypotheses. This study investigated the predictive power of workplace absenteeism in identifying alcohol or drug disorders (AOD). The first hypothesis was that higher absenteeism in a 12-month period is associated with higher risk that an employee is experiencing AOD. The second hypothesis was that AOD treatment would reduce subsequent absence rates and the costs of replacing pilots on missed flights. Methods. A case control design using eight years (time period) of monthly archival absence data (53,000 pay records) was conducted with a sample of (N = 76) employees having an AOD diagnosis (cases) matched 1:4 with (N = 304) non-diagnosed employees (controls) of the same profession and company (male commercial airline pilots). Cases and controls were matched on the variables age, rank and date of hire. Absence rate was defined as sick time hours used over the sum of the minimum guarantee pay hours annualized using the months the pilot worked for the year. Conditional logistic regression was used to determine if absence predicts employees experiencing an AOD disorder, starting 3 years prior to the cases receiving the AOD diagnosis. A repeated measures ANOVA, t tests and rate ratios (with 95% confidence intervals) were conducted to determine differences between cases and controls in absence usage for 3 years pre and 5 years post treatment. Mean replacement costs were calculated for sick leave usage 3 years pre and 5 years post treatment to estimate the cost of sick leave from the perspective of the company. Results. Sick leave, as measured by absence rate, predicted the risk of being diagnosed with an AOD disorder (OR 1.10, 95% CI = 1.06, 1.15) during the 12 months prior to receiving the diagnosis. Mean absence rates for diagnosed employees increased over the three years before treatment, particularly in the year before treatment, whereas the controls’ did not (three years, x = 6.80 vs. 5.52; two years, x = 7.81 vs. 6.30, and one year, x = 11.00cases vs. 5.51controls. In the first year post treatment compared to the year prior to treatment, rate ratios indicated a significant (60%) post treatment reduction in absence rates (OR = 0.40, CI = 0.28, 0.57). Absence rates for cases remained lower than controls for the first three years after completion of treatment. Upon discharge from the FAA and company’s three year AOD monitoring program, case’s absence rates increased slightly during the fourth year (controls, x = 0.09, SD = 0.14, cases, x = 0.12, SD = 0.21). However, the following year, their mean absence rates were again below those of the controls (controls, x = 0.08, SD = 0.12, cases, x¯ = 0.06, SD = 0.07). Significant reductions in costs associated with replacing pilots calling in sick, were found to be 60% less, between the year of diagnosis for the cases and the first year after returning to work. A reduction in replacement costs continued over the next two years for the treated employees. Conclusions. This research demonstrates the potential for workplace absences as an active organizational surveillance mechanism to assist managers and supervisors in identifying employees who may be experiencing or at risk of experiencing an alcohol/drug disorder. Currently, many workplaces use only performance problems and ignore the employee’s absence record. A referral to an EAP or alcohol/drug evaluation based on the employee’s absence/sick leave record as incorporated into company policy can provide another useful indicator that may also carry less stigma, thus reducing barriers to seeking help. This research also confirms two conclusions heretofore based only on cross-sectional studies: (1) higher absence rates are associated with employees experiencing an AOD disorder; (2) treatment is associated with lower costs for replacing absent pilots. Due to the uniqueness of the employee population studied (commercial airline pilots) and the organizational documentation of absence, the generalizability of this study to other professions and occupations should be considered limited. Transition to Practice. The odds ratios for the relationship between absence rates and an AOD diagnosis are precise; the OR for year of diagnosis indicates the likelihood of being diagnosed increases 10% for every hour change in sick leave taken. In practice, however, a pilot uses approximately 20 hours of sick leave for one trip, because the replacement will have to be paid the guaranteed minimum of 20 hour. Thus, the rate based on hourly changes is precise but not practical. To provide the organization with practical recommendations the yearly mean absence rates were used. A pilot flies on average, 90 hours a month, 1080 annually. Cases used almost twice the mean rate of sick time the year prior to diagnosis (T-1) compared to controls (cases, x = .11, controls, x = .06). Cases are expected to use on average 119 hours annually (total annual hours*mean annual absence rate), while controls will use 60 hours. The cases’ 60 hours could translate to 3 trips of 20 hours each. Management could use a standard of 80 hours or more of sick time claimed in a year as the threshold for unacceptable absence, a 25% increase over the controls (a cost to the company of approximately of $4000). At the 80-hour mark, the Chief Pilot would be able to call the pilot in for a routine check as to the nature of the pilot’s excessive absence. This management action would be based on a company standard, rather than a behavioral or performance issue. Using absence data in this fashion would make it an active surveillance mechanism.

Subject Area

Mental health|Occupational safety|Behaviorial sciences

Recommended Citation

Reynolds, Debra L. Troxell, "The role of workplace absence as an organizational mechanism in predicting employee alcohol and drug disorders" (2008). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3297462.