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The Price Companies Pay When Employees Work Sick

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So many employees work while sick these days that the phenomenon has acquired a name: presenteeism as opposed to absenteeism. A slew of online articles now describe the etiquette of working sick (wipe down surfaces, cough into your elbow, and—since the pandemic—wearing masks).

But if employees are present and working despite their illness, that’s good for business, right? Unfortunately, that benefit comes at a very high cost.

Cost 1: More Absences

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 4.2 million workers missed work in January of 2018 because of illness, more than in any previous January since 2013—and that was well before the pandemic. At the same time, responding to a survey by Robert Half/Accountemps, 90% of employees admitted that they sometimes or always come into work sick, a whopping 18% increase over the last decade.

No matter how many surfaces a coughing, sneezing, feverish coworker wipes down, germs spread. When employees are working sick, they spread infection. Most colds, for example, are contagious for two to four days after symptoms first appear; the flu is contagious for anywhere from three days to a week or more, depending on severity.

If you want people to be absent, encourage sick people to be present.

TIP: The Occupational Health and Safety Act of 2004 mandates that companies provide a safe workplace, including infection control.

Cost 2: Decreased Productivity

Estimates go as high as 30% in decreased productivity from employees who are working sick, and not because they are absent. While companies lost 803 million days of work due to absenteeism in 2018, the lower productivity of workers who showed up sick cost companies 527 million days of work.

One study measured the effect of thirteen health conditions on productivity, including bronchitis and cancer. The study found that even one health condition more than doubled the number of unproductive days. Bronchitis—which can be highly contagious and can be caused by a contagious cold or flu—was the second most expensive health issue of the thirteen, ranking right after cancer for productivity lost.

When people work sick, productivity plummets.

TIP: Encourage employees to stay home and go home when they are sick. Paid sick days actually decrease the number of sick days an employee takes by allowing greater rest and faster recovery without the stress of financial worries.

Cost 3: Increased Stress

The reasons employees give for working sick mirror their reasons for feeling stressed at work: pressure over workload and deadlines, anxiety over pay and job security, adverse comments from managers and teammates, and conflict between personal and work lives.

Several studies have shown that stress increases all indicators of illness, including susceptibility to worse illnesses and stress. In fact, many employees experience stress merely from attempting to call in sick! Moreover, a study in Britain found that the stigma attached to mental health issues has led nearly 42% of employees to call in sick when they are suffering, not physical ills, but burnout, anxiety, and depression.

Dealing with a sick employee also aggravates stress in co-workers. The resulting increase in absenteeism, the loss of productivity, and the increase in mistakes spread that stress upward even to C-level management. Sick workers contribute to stress, and stress makes everyone sick.

Sidebar: A pregnant employee was suffering an occasional mental lapse, during which other team members noticed that she was off in her own zone. Other times, she was perfectly fine. The team was confused and distracted but didn’t want to embarrass her or jeopardize her work by mentioning this problem. Finally, her team leader noticed and demanded that she see a doctor, despite her protests about looming deadlines. The doctor’s visit revealed a mild form of seizures attributable to high blood pressure during pregnancy. If silence had continued, she could have lost the baby and put herself at risk. Attentive, compassionate leadership saved them both—and allowed the team to get back on track.

What You Can Do: Company Policy

The US is one of only two Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries that do not universally guarantee paid leave for sick workers, leaving 1 in 3 US workers without paid sick leave.

Any combination of the following four changes in company policy will cut absenteeism, encourage sick employees to remain at home, improve productivity, and decrease errors on the job. The changes are presented in approximate order of importance.

  1. Give employees paid time off.
  2. Give managers the authority to send a sick person home.
  3. Separate sick days from vacation days and change the terminology to “personal days.” Employees don’t want to risk their vacation (vacations are important), and they don’t want to “fake” illness to take care of personal matters like a sick child or anxiety.
  4. Let employees work from home if they can. Do not let managers abuse this policy, as the purpose of staying home is to get well, not to get hounded.

What You Can Do: Company Culture

Does it affect your desire to eat out when you realize that 60% of food workers work sick? Most of them even have altruistic reasons, such as not wanting to leave their coworkers short-staffed. When the company culture, intentionally or not, encourages working sick, everyone suffers.

The most important cultural changes a company can institute are:

  1. Encourage health, not presenteeism.
  2. Recognize that most people do not abuse benefits but to use them responsibly—this has been evident with laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act.
  3. Understand and combat the role of stress.

As presenteeism grows, some companies are taking a more active role in employee health. The downsides of working sick are so expensive that those companies offer sick employees free consultations with doctors and specialists. For example, International Truck and Engine offered interested employees a free consultation with an allergy specialist.

Experts are also made available for dealing with stress, one of the leading causes of illness. The sources of workplace stress may be invisible to upper management even while they affect the entire company—for example, social stigmas related to mental health, tensions within a team, or the unwritten policy for handling individuals who do call in sick. The role of the stress expert is to unearth those hidden company and individual stressors and return the company to health.

What You Can Do: Team Leadership

Regardless of your influence over company policy or culture, you have an important role to play as a team leader. To contribute to employee health:

  1. Understand your company’s health and wellness policies, including leave and wellness programs, and make sure that your team is informed.
  2. Model responsible health behavior—stay home if you are sick.
  3. Allow working from home if possible, without hounding sick employees.
  4. Discourage any discrimination due to mental health issues and provide information on low-cost options available.
  5. Review breaks, workloads, and workplace positivity to make sure that you are not inadvertently contributing to the team’s stress and the likelihood that employees will become ill.

Key Takeaways

Employees are working while sick because they fear jeopardizing their paycheck, projects, and reputation at work—but statistics prove that working while sick jeopardizes all three while increasing stress and the spread of infection throughout the company. Company policies and culture and the practices of individual leaders should all encourage employees to absent themselves when sick and create a healthier workplace.

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