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Does Absence Make the Heart Grow Fonder?

Missing work doesn’t always serve the greater good.

Lately, we have seen a disconcerting spate of articles in the press about the wonderful things executives and their underlings can achieve when they are not actually in the office. A recent Wall Street Journal article gushed about the rising popularity of executive sabbaticals, enabling gifted burnouts to recharge their batteries by taking some time off. Another Journal story discussed the leadership-building opportunities to be gained from hitting the high seas and crossing the Atlantic in a 70-foot sailboat. Perhaps the most interesting article of all was a New York Times piece headlined “When Employees Are Sick, Absenteeism Can Be a Virtue.”


This article dealt with a burgeoning problem known as “presenteeism,” a situation that arises when sick employees drag their forlorn carcasses into the office and waste everybody else’s time by hacking their way through the working day on an empty tank. The danger here is twofold: First, employees who are under the weather generally do substandard work; second, sick employees can make other staffers sick as well, a development that can be catastrophic in a small office. In the words of Ronald Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, “Presenteeism is twice as big as absenteeism in America, and accounts for two-thirds of the productivity losses that occur at work.” The Journal also cited a study in the universally revered Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which reached the same basic conclusion.


At the risk of sounding like a spoilsport, something doesn’t add up. If, on the one hand, we are encouraging managing directors at executive-search firms to assemble a crew of nine and risk their lives on a 13-day, 3,000-mile jaunt across the high seas-because this hones CEO skills-why are we then telling lower-level employees to simply bag the day and stay home? Shouldn’t they at least rent a dinghy and paddle around in a local pond to make things look good? And since we are all so fond of applying dubious lessons from the world of competitive sports to the ostensibly cognate world of commerce, whatever happened to the good, old suck-it-up-and-take-one-for-the-team philosophy?


When the Philadelphia Eagles played the New England Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl, presenteeism buffs would have argued that the injured Terrell Owens’ participation in the game would be a distraction to his team, as he was playing at less than 100 percent on a bum wheel. In their view, he should have stayed at home, nursed his wounds, waited till next year, or gone yachting. Instead, the querulous but undeniably courageous Owens took the field on Super Sunday, caught nine passes for 122 yards and basically kept his team in the game. By contrast, quarterback/CEO Donovan McNabb ran out of gas and was allegedly huffing and puffing by the end of the game. Had Owens listened to the presenteeism buffs, the Eagles might have lost by three touchdowns, instead of getting edged by a lone field goal.


Sabbaticals, which the Journal describes as “the pause that refreshes,” seem to be of equally dubious value. Most of the people discussed in the story seemed like classic burnouts who didn’t need to step aside so much as they needed to step down. One of them is now back in the work force, earning 40 percent less than she did at her last job; another senior investment banker is looking for work. How’s that break working out for you now, eh?


Still seeking to close the deal, the Journal notes that sabbaticals are very popular in the publishing business, where they supposedly help rekindle the troops’ enthusiasm. The publishing industry, it should be noted, has had a hard time earning a dime since Gutenberg invented the printing press. How life lessons derived from this baffling industry are going to be of any help to executives in other businesses is a complete mystery.


Always suspicious of trends, mantras or tortured analogies linking sports and business, I cannot refrain from pointing out that the high-seas race involving the executive search director and his crew of nine was not a rousing triumph. According to the Journal, the Skipper’s team finished the race across the Atlantic in 11th place, fifth place in its class. Correct me if I am wrong, but that sounds like the crew finished out of the money. The lesson seems to be: If you work hard at something you’re not especially good at and surround yourself with a dedicated crew who aren’t that much better at it, you might be able to motivate them to finish 11th.


I think I’m missing something. 

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.