COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Manufacturing workers don't use "mental health days" as a way to deal with work-related stress, which may bode ill for their health, new research suggests.

In a study of employees at a manufacturing plant in the Midwest, researchers found that those employees experiencing a lot of work-related stress were not any more likely to take short, one- or two-day absences from work than employees who were less stressed.

Highly stressed employees were, however, significantly more likely to have long-term work absences requiring a physician's care than their less stressed counterparts, the researchers found.

"Employees in this plant were not using short-term absences as a way of coping with stress," said Catherine A. Heaney, an assistant professor of public health at Ohio State University and lead author of the study. "However, the fact that stress was linked to long-term absences -- but not short-term ones -- is

important. It suggests that perhaps if stressed employees took short-term absences, they'd avoid the long-term absences down the road."

Heaney conducted this research with Ohio State graduate student Jill Clemans. The pair's work was published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

For their study, Heaney and Clemans surveyed 998 employees at a mid-sized manufacturing plant about their work-related stress. The survey, which took place in January 1990, asked employees to rate their control over the work place, the extent to which they understand their work role there, how often they experience conflict, and how much stress they experience on the job each week. The survey also included questions about environmental stressors in the workplace, such as poor ventilation, excessive noise, dust, smoke and fumes.

After tabulating these survey results, Heaney and Clemans reviewed each employee's personnel records for 1989-1990 to tabulate work absences. Absences were divided into two categories: physician- excused absences and those not excused by a physician.

The results:

Organizational norms or the threat of stigma may explain why employees in this study did not use short-term absences as a way of coping with work stress, Heaney said.

"In this particular population of manufacturing employees, there was a stigma associated with taking a 'mental health day,'" she said. "It was simply not socially desirable. Perhaps some of that stigma comes from organizations themselves. Either explicitly or implicitly, they may be saying that any absenteeism is bad."

Despite the stigma, Heaney said, short-term work absences may be a viable solution to the problem of work stress -- for both employees and employers.

"Engaging in short-term absenteeism in response to work stress may actually prevent stress-related symptoms and illnesses from becoming manifest, thus improving employee health and productivity in the long run," she said. "Clearly, if someone is going to take a day or two off to recoup and avoid a three-month- long leave down the road, everybody wins. It's a short-term cost for a long-term benefit."

Heaney said she hopes the results of this study will cause both employees and employers to think of absenteeism in a slightly different way.

"Some types of absenteeism may be good," she said. "Perhaps the goal of reducing all absenteeism is not necessarily a health-promoting goal. Those policies may be self-defeating. Companies that espouse them may be shooting themselves in the foot."

Contact: Catherine A. Heaney, (614) 293-3908;

Written by Kelly McConaghy Kershner, (614) 292-8308;

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