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[01.17 | Keywords: Human Resources, Employment Policies, Presenteeism]

Do you ever go to work when you’re not feeling 100%? (Please don’t!)

Presenteeism – the problem of workers being on the job but, because of illness or other medical conditions, not fully functioning ñ can cut individual productivity by one-third or more, making it a much costlier problem than its productivity-reducing counterpart, absenteeism. 

Presenteeism isnít always apparent. While it is easy to see when someone is absent from work, itís difficult to tell when (or how much) an illness or medical condition hinders someoneís performance. As a result, presenteeism often goes unrecognized by employers, meaning it could adversely affect their bottom line. 

Why Don’t Workers Stay at Home? 

Findings show that while the U.S. workforce is keenly aware of the dangers and preventative tactics surrounding seasonal illnesses, personal accountability remains low, with nearly 80% still going to work sick. Why is this?

  • No paid sick days ñ According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, 39% of all American workers (41 million people) do not have paid sick leave and 50% are not covered by the Family Medical Leave Act. As a result, nearly half of the people surveyed in the annual Cold & Flu Season survey by Staples stated they would give up a vacation day to a sick worker to ensure they didn’t bring the illness to the workplace.
  • Combined paid time off ñ While lumping sick and vacation time together can be a wonderful benefit for employees, some may abuse the policy by choosing to work when they’re sick to accumulate the most paid time-off. Then, they use the time normally allotted for sick leave for vacation.
  • Company cultures and policies ñ If a company’s culture is inflexible when it comes to supporting time away from work, the business is inviting presenteeism. All employees will eventually need time away from work to deal with illness, whether it’s their own, a child’s, or another family member’s. So, it is important to be understanding and not discipline employees when they take a sick day. Instead, encourage them to get well soon.
  • Heavy workloads ñ A lack of cross training often keeps people at work since no one else has the ability to do their job while they are away. Nearly half of the workers surveyed (41%) felt there was too much going on at work to take a sick day, even if their employer provided designated sick days.
  • Job protection ñ People stay late even when workloads are light or come to work sick to show dedication to the business. More than half of the employees surveyed (52%) said going to work sick makes them both “hardworking and committed.”
  • Denial ñ Workers convince themselves that even though they aren’t completely healthy, they can still do their jobs. Unfortunately a cold, unlike the flu, creeps up slowly and can impact productivity and spread itself through an office before the sick person fully realizes what’s going on.

All of these factors promote presenteeism and can, in turn, exacerbate medical conditions, damage the quality of work life and lead to impressions of ineffectiveness due to declines in productivity.

The Cost of Presenteeism

The financial costs for presenteeism are staggering. Studies put the cost to U.S. employers between $150 and $250 billion each year – more than the costs of medical care, prescription drugs and absenteeism combined and representing 60 percent of all productivity losses.

People who come to work when sick are also likely to infect others; namely, coworkers and customers. Nearly 73% of workers surveyed said they caught a cold at work, and 32% blamed their fellow coworkers.

Unhealthy workers are unproductive workers – and they’re expensive. When people don’t feel good, they simply don’t do their best work. The cost of poor health can be three to 10 times the total cost of all employee benefits, because when employees aren’t operating at optimal levels, it takes longer to complete tasks and often leads to mistakes, directly impacting company costs.

Solving the Presenteeism Predicament

Research has found that less time is lost when people stay home while they are sick versus when they show up and don’t perform at full capacity. What measures can you, the employer, take to address presenteeism at your workplace?

ï Review workplace policies (both written and unwritten). Make sure employees don’t feel obliged to work when they are ill or should be on vacation. Examine and ensure that vacation and sick time policies are not counterproductive. Keep in mind that programs such as disciplinary action may in fact pressure sick employees to report to work, inadvertently encouraging presenteeism.

  • Provide paid sick days. Rethink the concept of sick leave. Instead of considering it an expensive entitlement, view it as social insurance for employees – something workers may or may not use. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, the U.S. economy would experience a net savings of $8.2 billion per year if workers were provided just seven paid sick days per year.
  • Cross-train workers to handle tasks when someone is absent. Every employee should have a backup who knows how to do the same job.
  • Invest in treatments for common illnesses to improve job performance. For example, numerous studies have shown that the cost of paying for employee flu shots or providing an onsite flu clinic is minimal compared to the savings realized through reductions in both absenteeism and presenteeism. More than 60% of survey respondents agree. Reducing the number of employees who contract and spread the flu is a win-win scenario for all.
  • Include employee health and well-being among company priorities. There is strong evidence that well-designed employee assistance programs, health risk assessments and wellness programs more than pay for themselves by lowering a company’s direct and indirect medical costs.
  • Open communication. Develop a company culture where employees are valued and can communicate openly with their management team. Nearly 75% of those surveyed think employers should encourage workers to stay home and rest when they are sick.
  • Make an effort to boost employee morale. Once an employee or a family member is actually ill, what can you do? Flexibility is key. Allow employees to visit the doctor during work hours and if technology allows, consider having employees work remotely from home when they (or their children) are ill.

While seasonal illnesses like the flu and common cold can wreak havoc on the workplace, the impact is greater when sick employees continue to show up to work. Keep germs at bay by providing your employees with the right tools and guidance needed to maintain a healthy workplace.