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The Problem of Presenteeism: Employees Coming to Work Sick Costs Businesses

The Problem of Presenteeism: Employees Coming to Work Sick Costs Businesses
Credit: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Everybody gets sick now and again, but in an economy where productivity is emphasized, many workers are tempted to show up even when they're feeling under the weather. This trend of coming to work sick is known as "presenteeism," and it carries significant risks to public health and costs businesses money.

Preventing presenteeism, though, can be harder than it sounds. Businesses need to recognize that some workers will simply try to work through an illness rather than taking the time they need to recover and prevent that behavior before it becomes harmful to other employees, as well as the business's bottom line.

Presenteeism might not sound like a major problem. After all, most people like to rest when they're not feeling well. However, it's more common than it might seem. According to a survey of 642 white-collar workers conducted by Office Pulse, 70 percent of respondents said they come into work even when they feel sick.

The most common reason employees show up while ill is to avoid falling behind (38 percent). But 30 percent of workers said they don't want to sacrifice their paid time off to illness, and 10 percent said their bosses expect them to work through a sickness.

"When employees come to work sick, they jeopardize the rest of the team and put them at risk of also getting sick, which then means that each employee will soon face the same amount of lost productivity and the business now has to shoulder [multiple] sick employees rather than just the one," said Stephanie Troiano, marketing manager at The HIRE Talent.

However noble an employee's intentions, coming to work sick is reckless and costly. Researchers from the University of Arizona found that when one worker spends just 2-4 hours in the workplace, they spread germs to 40-60 percent of commonly touched surfaces in the area. Illness spreads quickly, especially in confined spaces like offices.

"When sick employees feel compelled to physically go to work, they risk exposing the entire office staff and their clients to disease," said Ilana Jacqueline, patient advocate and author of Surviving and Thriving with an Invisible Chronic Illness (New Harbinger Publications, 2018). "For an otherwise healthy employee, it may cost them several days of a bad cold. For more at-risk populations, it could result in hospitalizations, the need of intravenous antibiotics and weeks of grueling recovery."

Presenteeism isn't just a risk to the well-being of colleagues and their families; it also represents a huge economic cost. The American Productivity Audit estimates that presenteeism costs the U.S. economy $150 billion in lost productivity every year. For small businesses, runaway costs associated with presenteeism could seriously threaten operational continuity. Businesses need to be proactive in their approach to preventing presenteeism before it becomes a problem.

Employers have several options when it comes to presenteeism. By combining policies that allow workers to take time off without sacrificing their vacation days with remote work capabilities, employers can significantly reduce instances of presenteeism. Making it clear in day-to-day culture that employees can and should take time off when they need to also helps highly motivated employees feel more secure stepping away to recover.

Paid sick leave could alleviate the drive for employees to come in sick. Many employees don't want sick time to cut into their paid time off (after all, who wants to burn a day for a bad cold in February that could be spent soaking up the sun in July?). With paid time off specifically for sick leave, employees can feel empowered to take the recovery time they need without feeling like they're sacrificing their recreational time off work.

"Employees should provide generous PTO and sick days," said Shemifhar Freytes, an engagement and corporate culture strategist at Enlivity. "A lot of employees show up to work sick because they don't want to use their vacation time. Giving them flexibility and generous PTO will help them take the time they need to recover." [Interested in time and attendance systems for your business? Check out our best picks.]

When employees feel sick but still want to work, there's often no reason for them to come into the office and risk spreading germs. Today's employees have the tools to work from home when needed. Companies should give employees the flexibility to stay home when they're unwell.

"With the rise of video conference software and online workspace organizational tools, employees are better equipped than ever before to do their jobs from the comfort of their own homes," Jacqueline said. "Whether their illnesses are chronic or acute, if companies implement the use of these tools, not only will they minimize the cost of absenteeism due to illness, but also due to inclement weather, traffic and parental leave."

Making it clear that management not only supports but encourages employees taking time off until their health recovers can go a long way in preventing presenteeism. Many workers are simply worried about what their bosses might think, so reassuring them regularly and cementing time off into workplace culture is a big help.

"It's incredibly important that the 'sick policy' come from the top," Troiano said. "It should be an employer-sponsored policy, because if it's an initiative carried out by the team … and not management, it sends the message that the expectation is to work when sick … [and] your health isn't an excuse to stop being productive." 

When an employee feels compelled to come to work while sick, everybody loses. Whether the illness spreads to other employees or simply reduces the sick employee's productivity and prolongs their illness, nothing good is achieved by allowing workers to come in while sick.

If an employee insists upon working, consider letting them work from home, but nothing beats rest and recuperation when an employee is ill. They'll be back on their feet more quickly, and the rest of the office can breathe a sigh of relief knowing they weren't exposed to a sick co-worker.

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam C. Uzialko, a New Jersey native, graduated from Rutgers University in 2014 with a degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies. In addition to his full-time position at Business News Daily and Business.com, Adam freelances for a variety of outlets. An indispensable ally of the feline race, Adam is owned by four lovely cats.