Don’t ‘soldier on’ if you’re sick

Workers are often criticised for their rate of absenteeism, but ‘presenteeism’ ‘going to work when you are sick’ may be a much bigger problem.

All of us have sometimes felt obliged to struggle into work when we’re feeling unwell. Health authorities refer to this kind of soldiering on as ‘presenteeism’ – and increasingly they believe it’s a bad thing.

Sick people who go to work with a cold or influenza risk infecting their co-workers and therefore increasing the total sickness burden on their workplace.  Not only do they spread disease to others unnecessarily, they are also less productive.

Studies show that reaction time is 20% to 40% slower, so accidents and mistakes are more likely, according to the US National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID). Medications taken to ease symptoms may further reduce productivity and safety.

The Harvard Business Review cites evidence that presenteeism can have a serious impact in the workplace. In a typical year, influenza – commonly called the flu – in US workplaces may result in as much as $10 billion in lost productivity.

‘Controlling flu spread in the workplace is important from both a public health and business perspective,’ said NFID medical director Susan Rehm.

‘Public health leaders and corporations need to work together to provide guidance to the workforce, so they can better understand the public health and economic implications of being sick at work.’

A recent survey by the NFID found that 35% of Americans feel pressured to go to work when they are sick with the flu.

At the same time, almost half the workforce feels annoyed or angry when a co-worker does exactly that.

When asked why they feel pressured to show up, 60% of employees said they are concerned about their work not getting done, and 48% said they feel guilty for missing work.

Other reasons include fear their boss will be angry and concern about losing their job.

Only 64% of people feel their employer encourages workers to stay at home if they are sick.

Despite the usual focus on the cost to business of absenteeism, a disease outbreak such as a bird flu pandemic would dramatise the risks of presenteeism.

Immunologist Professor Ron Penny, who diagnosed Australia’s first case of AIDS in the 1980s, says people need to be educated to stay at home when they get any type of flu.

‘At the moment now, one of the serious problems in preparing for a pandemic is that the population really has very low levels of hand washing and staying at home if you’ve got a flu-like illness with a fever,’ Professor Penny told reporters recently.

‘It’s still accepted that they’re allowed to come to work. There’s no strong recommendation that people who have a seriously infectious disease should stay at home. I think we need to educate people.’

NSW occupational health and safety law supports this view.

The legislation requires an employer to ensure a safe workplace for employees and others, and discouraging staff who are potentially infectious from coming to work is part of this.

Employees also are required by OH&S legislation to take care of the health and safety of others. On this basis, they should stay at home if they have a contagious illness.

Tips to ease the flu

If you have flu symptoms, here’s how to reduce the risk to yourself and others:

  • stay home until you’re better
  • avoid public places and close contact with others
  • always cough and sneeze into a disposable tissue and wash your hands afterwards
  • get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, and get plenty of sleep
  • for aches and pains and fever, take simple over-the-counter painkilling and temperature-lowering drugs like paracetemol or aspirin.