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Presenteeism: The Costs of Going to Work When Sick

FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with applied experience in corporate human resources and consulting.

Reporting to Work Ill: What Are the Costs?

It's not heroic to report to work sick.  You're spreading your illness and risking the health of others.  Take to your sick self to bed.

It's not heroic to report to work sick. You're spreading your illness and risking the health of others. Take to your sick self to bed.

Hey, Don't Spread the Love ...

Sick with the flu, she has dragged herself to the office again ... coughing, snotty, and feeling ragged. Arming herself with a box of tissues and a pack of throat lozenges, she retreats to her workspace to produce whatever she can.

She attends meetings, commiserates with coworkers on her symptoms, and touches the same door handles, chair arms, and copier buttons as office mates. Although she may see it as an act of devotion to her job, when this employee reported to duty sick she subjected coworkers, customers, her employer, and even herself to unnecessary risks.

Tomorrow, she'll do it again.

Just Stay Home

This lady smartly stayed home, attended by her cat, Lucy.

This lady smartly stayed home, attended by her cat, Lucy.

Confession TIme

Presenteeism: What Is It?

Presenteeism refers to reporting to work when ill and thus not working to full capacity.1 Common examples of illnesses that fail to keep employees at home include allergies, migraines, the cold and flu, back pain, and Norovirus (winter vomiting virus).2

When employees work sick they fail to work mindfully—that is, in the present moment, giving focused attention to the task. Instead, they are less productive because they are distracted by thoughts and sensations of their illness. Symptoms of their illness thus compete for their attention, on top of all the usual office distractors.

Working sick may result in

  • decreased work output
  • reduced time spent on work tasks
  • lower quality work
  • more mistakes and
  • poorer staff morale while the sick employee is present.3

This may be a special concern if the employee is on medications that induce drowsiness or if she has lost significant sleep due to her illness. The cost of such presenteeism is estimated at $150 billion annually.

Signs of a Presentee Worker

If your work space includes these, maybe you belong at home.

If your work space includes these, maybe you belong at home.

Whom Does It Hurt?

Sick Employees Suffer Greatest

Risks for the sick employee and employer include the possibility that the employee will work until exhaustion. Studies have found that there is a greater likelihood that employees who report to work ill will later suffer poor future health—including serious coronary events—and will require subsequent sick leave.4,5

Additionally, by reporting to work ill, the employee becomes a higher on-the-job accident risk. According to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), workers with access to paid sick leave were 28% less likely to suffer nonfatal workplace injuries.6

She's sick with the flu, but she's going to suffer through it and report to work anyway.

She's sick with the flu, but she's going to suffer through it and report to work anyway.

Impacts On Colleagues and Customers

Presenteeism may likewise carry consequences for the employee's colleagues and customers when the illness carries the risk of contagion. Those who work with food, for example, can become vectors of infection by transferring their germs to food preparation surfaces, the food itself or through the air (as through coughing).

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Read More From Toughnickel

Each year, nearly one in six Americans is infected with a foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Norovirus causes almost half of all foodbourne illnesses in the United States.7 Norovirus can spread when small particles of feces or vomit are transferred through direct or indirect contact.

The virus may be passed to others for as long as three days after symptom recovery. A 2011 CDC study found that 12% of nearly 500 food service workers surveyed acknowledged reporting to work with vomiting and diarrhea for two or more shifts.8