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September 26, 2002 New Research Chair in Management studies absence from work



Gary Johns

Gary Johns, a leading researcher on absenteeism and stress in the workplace.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Julie Parkins

Calling in sick for work is something many of us have done at one time or another. Perhaps we weren’t actually sick, but just felt that we needed a “mental health” day.

Absence from work is so prevalent, and so intriguing, that Management Professor Gary Johns will never run out of material. A 28-year veteran of the subject, Johns has just been named to the Concordia University Research Chair in Management.

“When I started studying absenteeism, it was a pretty boring subject and not many people looked at it,” Johns said in an interview. “It was thought that it was simply a product of job dissatisfaction, which is true, but that’s only one of a dozen reasons. It was also associated with demographics, but it wasn’t clear then and it isn’t clear now why that is.”

Johns’ work in absenteeism and other areas of industrial organizational psychology has appeared frequently in nearly every top journal in the field. He has earned the status of fellow in several professional societies, and his advice is sought by the editors of academic journals. One colleague quoted by Dean Jerry Tomberlin at the reception held in Johns’ honour last Thursday went even further.

Dr. Susan Jackson, Director of Doctoral Programs at Rutgers University, said, “Dr. Johns is widely recognized throughout the international scholarly community as the world’s leading expert on the phenomenon of absence from work. Indeed, there is really is no one else who is a close second in the field.”

As Research Chair in Management, Dr. Johns looks forward to bringing in influential speakers, planning conferences and involving more and more PhD students in his work.

At the reception, he mentioned one of his former students, Jia Lin Xie, who worked for a week in a Chinese restaurant to get data for her thesis. Another study by Johns and Xie showed, perhaps for the first time, the radical differences between Chinese and Western attitudes to absenteeism and stress in the workplace. She is now a professor at the University of Toronto.

Early work has influenced many

Johns takes great pleasure in seeing the effects that his work has had throughout the years.

“One of the coolest things in all of this has been how I’ve been able to have some impact on other people’s work. I was really lucky that a lot of work that I did early on was assigned in PhD courses all around North America and a bunch of graduate students cottoned on to it.”

Johns sees the need for even more emphasis on the so-called soft skills in business today — how people react in groups, understanding what motivates people, and decision-making.

“These soft skills are some of the hardest things to train into people. The easy thing is that people like it and it’s interesting, but the down side is that it can be amazingly hard to get people to change their own behaviour.”

Johns cites the recent scandal at Enron as an example.

“It’s not that these people didn’t understand Accounting 101 and Finance 101, they understood them all too well, well enough to manipulate the books, anyway.

“What they didn’t understand is Organizational Behaviour 101, and how to set standards and detect this sort of behaviour. This is the greatest challenge. All this other material in business schools is irrelevant unless it gets translated through behaviour perceptions and attitudes of people in work.”