Thursday, January 23, 2014


Coming to work sick and what it costs your business

So, I’ve had the flu this week. (And yes, I had gotten a flu shot in October - *sigh*) I went through the stages of not being able to stand being vertical for more than a few minutes at a time, through being bored silly, but not feeling well enough to do anything productive. No one likes being sick; we don’t have time for it! Between having too much to do at work, to too much to do at home, we just don’t want to take the time to be sick. Too bad we don’t really have a choice once we actually get sick.

But, after reaching the boredom stage, I started to think about my post for this week. I thought the issue of "presenteeism" seemed fitting. Who of us hasn’t gone to work with a cold, or even the flu?

What is "presenteeism"? That’s where employees come to work anyway when they’re sick or otherwise unable to be fully productive. What does that cost us?

As it turns out, it costs plenty; possibly more than absenteeism.

There are a number of studies, here, and here for example, that indicate that presenteeism can cost between $150 and $250 billion per year to US businesses. Ouch. Indications are that it can cost 60% or more of total employee illness costs (and that includes things like the cost of health insurance, etc.) And for the most part, few businesses even attempt to track the cost of this phenomenon.

How are these costs incurred? The most obvious one is that if employees come to work sick, they will invariably spread that illness to other employees, thus increasing absences and causing more presenteeism. An ill employee is not working up to capacity, and that may cause lower quality work product, necessary do-overs, inadequate customer service, and even higher workplace injury rates. In addition, coming to work before fully recovered may actually result in more absenteeism. You can’t really recover if you don’t rest and take care of your cold or flu, right?

Why do people come to work sick and can we really do anything about it? The reasons are many.

Some employees just don’t want to miss work and have it pile up. Cross-training can be helpful here so no one feels like the world stops turning if they can’t come into work. Can you offer any of your employees the option of working from home if they don’t feel well enough to come into the office? Can you provide the resources for them to do so (computer, network access, etc.)?

Others simply don’t want to use a paid day off. Surprisingly, PTO banks can actually contribute to this mindset. Employees may treat all paid time off as vacation and therefore will not use it for sick leave, coming into work ill instead. Having sick time separate from other PTO leave may resolve this for some employees.

Lack of paid sick days is certainly an issue for some. Often it’s lower paid, or less than full-time employees who do not have access to paid sick leave. They don’t feel they can afford to take a sick day. This can be a tough nut to crack if your business simply cannot afford to offer all employees paid sick leave. However, if you can, you should. If not, education may help. The understanding that if you don’t allow yourself time to recover, you’ll end up missing more time, and therefore, missing more pay, is something not all employees think about.
Your workplace culture could be encouraging presenteeism. If employees feel their jobs are at risk by taking time off for illness, you’re encouraging something you’d ideally like to prevent. Make sure employees understand their health is important to you and to the overall health of the company. Workplace wellness programs may help here. While there are recent studies that indicate such programs are not achieving the intended results (reducing insurance claim costs); the effort you put into showing your employees you care about their well-being can be a step in the process to having them understand that coming to work while ill does not serve them or you.

Lead by example. If as a supervisor, manager or other upper level executive, you show up sick, you’re encouraging others to do the same. When an employee comes to work with a clearly contagious illness, it’s really best to send her home to get better, and make sure she understands her job is not in jeopardy for missing a day or two here or there due to illness.

Our company was closed on Monday and we had a snow day on Tuesday, so I had an additional couple of days without losing work time to recover (mostly) from the flu. Have I gone to work with a cold? Yep. I’ll think about it a bit more before I do so again. Here’s hoping that you can convince your employees to do the same.

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