HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
September 24, 2007, Herald Journal

Presenteeism: it’s enough to make one sick


A Canadian bakery worker was ordered by health inspectors to stay away from work until he recovered from salmonella poisoning. He ignored the order, and as a result, he is going to have to fork over a lot of dough.

The over-zealous worker was fined C$1,000 (about $970 US) for his actions. The bakery and its owner must also pay hefty fines.

It is obvious why health officials are concerned about food industry workers going to work sick. No one wants salmonella muffins or influenza salad. But what about workers in other industries?

We have all seen it. The dedicated employee who drags himself to work even though he is sick as a dog.

The poor slob carries a box of tissues wherever he goes. His eyes are red and swollen. He wheezes his way around the office or sits at his desk moaning softly to himself.

With the cold and flu season rapidly approaching, we are likely to start seeing a lot more walking wounded haunting the workplace soon.

The trend has become so common, there is even a new word for it. It is called presenteeism (as opposed to absenteeism).

Presenteeism refers to situations where a person goes to work, even though he should stay home because he is sick, contagious, or feeling so poorly he can’t do his job properly.

It has been estimated that losses from presenteeism exceed $150 billion annually, and make up about 60 percent of the total cost of worker illness.

There are a variety of reasons people go to work when they are sick.

Some may have a twisted sense of duty, or the feeling that they have to go to work because they are indispensable.

Others can’t afford to take the time off, either because they need the money or because their employers penalize those who stay home, even when they are sick.

In 2006, only 57 percent of workers (excluding government employees) had access to paid sick leave, according to the US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Not surprisingly, things are worse for those who earn the least. The Families and Work Institute found that only 39 percent of low-wage employees get time off for illness.

Employers should ask themselves which costs more, paying for employee sick leave, or paying in other ways, through extended illnesses, lost productivity, and spreading disease to other employees.

Employers don’t seem to get it. Many are reducing or eliminating sick days, or are adopting “use it or lose it” policies rather than letting employees accrue sick days.

Even those employees who have access to sick leave contribute to the problem. Many parents drag themselves to work when they are ill, and save their sick days for when their children are sick. No doubt their co-workers really appreciate this.

Regardless of the reason behind presenteeism, we are all victims. People descend on the office hacking and sneezing and spewing germs all over cubeville, so that their co-workers can share their misery.

More than 75 percent of Americans go to work with the common cold or other ailments.

It is enough to make one start wearing a surgical mask to the office and carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer and a big can of disinfectant spray.

People are less productive when they are sick, and are more likely to make errors.

In addition to being a health hazard, sick people in the workplace bring down the productivity level for the entire office.

No matter how hard one tries, it is tough to focus when the inhabitant of the next cube is hacking up a lung every three minutes or so.

Even the most dedicated worker can end up bracing himself in anticipation of the next jarring coughing fit on the other side of the wall.

And, who really wants to listen to people sniffling and wheezing and evacuating their sinus cavities all day anyway?

Experts say that people recover more quickly if they get some rest. It is better for the employee and for his co-workers if he stays home until he recovers.

Not only do sick workers spread disease to their co-workers, but those employed in jobs that bring them into contact with the public pose an even greater health risk.

If current trends continue, the next pandemic may be only a sneeze away.

Presenteeism is a serious problem, but we cannot rely on the government to fix it. The government is better at creating problems than solving them.

There are some cases, like that of the bakery worker in Canada, where it may be necessary for health officials to step in to prevent the spread of disease.

The real solution though, is for employers and employees to take responsibility.

Employers need to give workers the means to stay home when they are sick, and workers need to recognize when they are contagious or not able to work safely or productively, and stay home until they recover.

Sharing can be a good thing, but not when it comes to nasty infectious diseases.