Sickness in the office is a two-way street

According to an article in the December 26th Health & Fitness section of The New York Times, ailing employees are dragging themselves into work in record numbers. Instead of staying home to nurse their cold, flu or virus, employees are working right through their illnesses and, in the process, infecting their peers. They do so either because they’re incredibly dedicated or incredibly afraid of losing their job.

The syndrome has become so widespread that researchers have even developed a name for it: ‘presenteeism" as opposed to "absenteeism.’

According to a National Foundation for Infectious Diseases study, more than one-third of workers say they feel pressured to go to work by their employers. Another survey taken of human resource managers revealed that 59 percent believed presenteeism had become a problem in their offices.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you presenteeism is a huge problem at Peppercom (and, it’s not because we pressure anyone to come to work).

Some of our employees come to the office when they shouldn’t and quickly spread their germs to unsuspecting co-workers. It’s a phenomenon that routinely decimates our workforce population at least twice annually.

We’ve tried to take steps to change employees’ mindset: for example, we encourage them to stay home and/or send them packing if we catch them hacking, sneezing or wheezing in the middle of meetings.

According to the Times, presenteeism occurs because many companies refuse to provide sick leave for employees. In my mind, that’s being penny wise and pound foolish. I’ve seen the havoc one sick employee can have on the overall productivity of our firm.

Happily, Congress is planning to step in and require employers with 15 or more workers to provide seven days a year of paid sick leave. That’s a step in the right direction, but the onus is on employees as well. If you’re not well, stay home. Infecting others reflects poorly on you and on the firm. What seems like dedication on the surface can quickly become destructive if the germs that are spread within the petri dish that is most office environments end up impacting overall productivity and morale.

I know I speak for most enlightened employers when I say, ‘stay at home and get well. The business can manage without you.’

3 thoughts on “Sickness in the office is a two-way street

  1. Funny, I just turned on the local news and heard the meteorologist struggle through the forecast, clearly suffering from a head cold. She was one of several broadcasters who were on air over the holidays who were clearly suffe3ring from colds, etc. Seems like the idea of showing up for work when sick extends to broadcast media too — who end up reinforcing the idea to the rest of us.

  2. Did we forget about telecommuting? Many of us have worked from home for a number of reasonjs — long distance travel, raising a child, etc. So, if an employee is not feeling well, yet feels compelled to work, why not work at home even if it’s not an eight-hour day?
    Company gets billable time out of the employee, the company doesn’t have to worry about the employee coming into the office and spreading their colds, etc.

  3. very interesting post today, as i read that story and not really sure what the real answer is. meaning, having worked pcom several years ago, i can attest that presenteeism did exist, (and my first 2 jobs as well) but i think it existed b/c employees thought it was the best option.
    i clearly recall many a time at 470 park ave south when employees would call in sick, an email would go out saying “joe blow is out sick today…” and many comments would be made like “he didn’t look sick yesterday, or he sure sounded fine, or maybe he had a few too many last night.” don’t get me wrong, the same thing happens at most workplaces in the country- but i am using pcom as an example b/c repman referenced it in his post.
    so that leaves the employee in a quite a pickle- namely, the next time they are sick and call in, they know that the comments will fly in the office. so they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
    interested to hear your response and solutions if there are any