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Byline: By Kathleen Murray, Orange County Register

Robert Long and Richard Tusco don't fancy themselves goof-offs.

Still, the two Farmers Insurance claims representatives acknowledge that they and their co-workers play hooky from time to time.

Sometimes they leave work to go home. Other times, they hit the beach, shoot 18 holes of golf or take a class.

''Some people even used to go to the movies,'' said Long, 29, who works in Orange. ''The supervisors sort of look the other way. They know it happens because the job is demanding. They did it when they were coming up through the ranks.''

To the uninitiated, it might smack of goldbricking. But to many employees, and a few of their bosses, taking a mental-health day now and then can mean survival in the increasingly competitive and stressful working world.

Of course, a lot of employers aren't thrilled with the concept, and few will publicly say it exists. Yet more and more employers are starting to look the other way or facilitate it when employees take a mental-health day, psychologists and workplace consultants say.

''I've seen people take a day off to mentally recoup, and I think it's an excellent way to use a sick day,'' said Dr. Richard Rappaport, a psychiatrist and associate professor at the University of San Diego who often advises companies on employment issues.

''If it's taken as a preventive measure because an employee is stressed out, it will probably save them sick days in the future. I can see that a company wouldn't be thrilled, but in the long run it might be more cost-effective,'' Rappaport said.

In recent years, a number of employers have restructured their time-off policies in ways that make taking a mental-health day a bit easier.

Some are developing paid time-off programs that allow workers a certain number of days for both vacation and personal holidays. Instead of getting 10 vacation days and five sick days, workers might get 15 days a year to use at their discretion.

''Often it's a much better system,'' said John Hermann, a consultant with Total Employee Relations in Irvine, Calif. ''Employees can use the time as they see fit, and they aren't put in the position of having to lie to get the day off. The only problem comes if they use up their days and then get sick.''

Flexible scheduling
Others employers are turning to flexible scheduling plans that allow workers more leeway in choosing the hours they work. Fluor Corp., for example, has created nine-hour workdays. Employees now get every other Friday off, and Fluor says absenteeism is down.

''People are moving into a cycle of valuing personal time more,'' said Glenn Meister, a principal at the Los Angeles office of Foster Higgins, a benefits-consulting firm.

''However, employers are reacting to this slowly. . . . If they really wanted to empower their employees, they would say, 'If you want to take a personal day, that's OK.' ''

The recession is one reason such policies have yet to take full flight. With so many companies cutting back, the productivity of the remaining workers is that much more important.

At the same time, employees are working harder and picking up additional duties. Many workers are afraid to miss a day, no matter how stressed out they might feel. Absenteeism rates were down slightly in 1991, the first change in five years, according to the Bureau of National Affairs.

''It's kind of scary, with so many people out of jobs right now,'' said Wendy Apelian, a sales representative with Volt Temporary Services in Santa Ana.

Cycle of spending
Some experts think it's more than that.

Juliet Scher, an economics professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., says the average American works too much because he has forgotten how to spend leisure time.

In her recently published book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, Basic Books, New York, Scher says that the amount of time spent working has gone up during the past two decades, not out of choice but because we can't afford to do otherwise.

Americans, she says, are caught in a cycle of working to support a level of consumption that is out of bounds. Even when U.S. workers take days off, she says, their favorite way to pass the time is spending money.

Judy Jacobsen, an investment officer for Orange County, knows what Scher is talking about. She can't remember ever calling in sick to take a personal day.

''But when I take time off, I like to spend it shopping,'' she said.

Employers in such high-stress occupations as health care tend to be most flexible when it comes to allowing employees mental-health days.

'We just juggle'
At Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, it's no big deal when nurses say they want to take a day off.

''We're very open to employees who say they need time,'' Amy Baker, a hospital spokeswoman, said. ''We just juggle the scheduling. Our objective is not to make people work for extended periods with no rest.''

Najm Meshkati, a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, studies occupational stress and organizational design. He believes personal time off can alleviate stress temporarily. However, he says, the better solution is for the employer to try to reorganize the job or alter the environment to make the job more pleasant or challenging to the employee.

''Mental health days are good,'' he said. ''But they're like tranquilizers. They take away the pain, but they don't cure the disease.'


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