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Stay Home – Cold and Flu Season is Here. Sick? Stay Home!

Posted by Scott Fiore on January 2, 2014

As we move into the winter months, cold and flu season will affect many of our employees; however, most of these employees won’t stay home to recuperate.  Instead, they’ll drag themselves into the office when they are feeling sick and end up making several co-workers sick in the process.  The sick employee isn’t intentionally trying to spread their germs around, but they feel the need to come to work for reasons related to responsibility, perception, and financial burdens.  There’s now a new term to describe this trend “presenteeism”.

According to a new study by Staples, 90% of American workers go to work when they are knowingly contagious.  This percentage is up from 80% in 2012 and 60% in 2011.  In addition to showing up for work sick, approximately 50% of employees will not get a flu shot.  So why are people at work when they shouldn’t be?  The term “presenteeism” has been coined to describe this trend.  Presenteeism can be as costly to an employer as absenteeism.  For example, germs can be spread to healthy workers resulting in other employees not being able to come into work. Another example is even though the sick employee is present at work, they are most likely not functioning at 100%, which can result in lower quality of products or services, poor customer service and an increased chance of a work-related injury.  The cost of presenteeism for employers can be significant.  Various studies have reported th at the total cost of presenteeism to American employers falls anywhere between $150 billion to $250 billion each year.

Presenteeism tends to occur at a higher rate during times of economic strain, downsizing and budget cuts.  This type of business climate may cause employees to feel they are unable to take time off due to illness.

Below are several other reasons that may contribute to presenteeism:

  • Lack of Paid Sick Days:  People may not be able to afford to take an unpaid day off from work, or they don’t want to use their vacation time to stay home when they are sick.
  • Combined Paid Time Off (PTO) Benefits:  Most PTO policies include sick leave, but employees may perceive all paid time off as vacation and therefore won’t use it to stay home sick, but come into work and share their germs.
  • Workplace Culture and Policies:  Sometimes managers may discourage or even penalize employees for taking sick days, vacation or other types of days off, even if they are entitled to them.  Employees come to work sick as a form of job security.
  • No Work at Home Alternatives: Companies who don’t offer telecommuting or remote access options, may be discouraging sick employees from staying home.  Telecommuting would allow the employee to meet critical deadlines without spreading contagious germs to their co-workers.
  • Denial:  Some people who are sick convince themselves to go into work because they don’t think they are sick enough to stay home.

What can employers do to cut down on illness in the office? First, lead by example.  If you’re the boss, stay home when you’re sick. This way, employees won’t feel so pressured to come into work when they are truly sick. Second, review existing time off policies to ensure they are still relevant to the current work force. Third, encourage employees to stay home when they are sick.  Yes, we all know that sometimes people lie about being sick, but we need to strive to create a culture where it is OK to stay home when you are sick.  Employers may need to communicate what constitutes being sick enough to stay home and what doesn’t.  For example, a sore throat, mild cold or headache, would probably not be grounds to stay home sick.

Presenteeism is one end of the spectrum, so now let’s take a look at the other end:  Employees who use their sick days for everything but actual illness.  For example, you may have an employee who falls into the “seasonal absence syndrome”.   They’ll call in sick, but are really just taking the day off or using it as a mental health day.  These seasonal absence syndrome days usually occur in the summer months, around holidays or Mondays/Fridays throughout the year.  OK, we understand that everyone needs a break and if they have PTO or sick time to use, that’s fine.  However, what happens to the individual who uses all of their PTO, but still needs time off?  Managers should counsel this individual separately and make sure they fully understand the PTO or Sick Time policy. Disciplinary action may be needed if habitual or excessive absenteeism continues.   It is not unreasonable for an employer to expect regular attendance from its workforce.   Offering an unpaid leave of absence or requiring the employee to use vacation time to cover the days needed is another option.

For more information about managing a healthy workforce and developing an effective Paid Time Off Policy, click here to download our white paper titled, 10 PTO Policy Problems & Solutions.