Phenomenon in the Workplace: Presenteeism

As we carry on through the winter months, many of us become more acutely aware of the bad health that is passed around the office. Cubicles can become like quarantines as determined employees cough from behind their computers; employees become harbingers of the doom of sickness. Sick employees coming in to work, rather than staying home to nurse themselves back to health, has become such a phenomenon in the workplace that it has been aptly described as “the opposite of absenteeism,” or presenteeism.

Why do employees feel the need to present themselves at the office, even in the worst of physical conditions? Why do they leave sick spouses and children in the care of others and elect instead to bring the germs of their kin to their colleagues?

Some suggest that it’s a simple case of, “well, they just can’t do the work without me.” An employee’s benevolence toward their peers drives them to their cubicle chair even as they sneeze, cough, blow their nose, and systematically spread their viruses. In other offices, downsizing brings the constant pressure to be more productive than before and employees may feel that it is imperative they be at their desks come rain or shine, cold or flu. As a third option, the motivation to work while sick might stem from the real fear of losing a job. Especially for part-time workers, the perception may be that taking time off places your job security in jeopardy. So, workers in the hospitality industry, beauty industry, and food industry trudge to work and try to keep their sniffles to themselves.

According to research done at Cornell University, sick employees “account for as much as 60% of corporate health costs.” Instead of accepting the cost, company leaders can take steps to encourage their employees to stay away when it’s necessary to the health of other employees.

Educate your employees so they can recognize the symptoms and are able to shorten the duration of the sickness with natural remedies or doctor-prescribed care. Especially encourage them to stay away when the disease is at its height. As with the common cold, individuals begin to feel symptoms 2 to 3 days after coming in contact with the virus and are contagious for the first 2 or 3 days after symptoms begin to occur.

If their job allows, let employees work from home, and foster a work culture which makes this an acceptable alternative to coming to work and sticking it out. As many know, those hours at home without the daily interruptions of the workplace might be the most productive day they’ve had in weeks.

If you’re in favor of large change, a company might even reassess their company policy for sick leave. Some companies across the country have built sick days into their employee’s regular schedule of time off, encouraging them to take the necessary time to get themselves healthy, and to stay home with sick family members instead of bringing the sickness into the office.

Of course, these suggestions only skim the surface of the issue of sickness in the office space. But when there seems to be an overarching expectation, whether from themselves or their superiors, that sick employees should be present and accounted for even on their worst days, it is beneficial to ask why and consider alternative options that might help keep the germs out of your office and away from other productive employees.

Have you taken steps to encourage sick employees to stay away from the office when it’s necessary to the health of other employees? Share with us in the comments below.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Flickr by jfeuchter