“Contagious presenteeism” is an erratic plague that businesses worldwide are fighting to get rid of. The term, which was recently coined by researchers studying employee behavior trends, refers to the act of ignoring one’s ill status and going to work sick, while increasing the risk of infecting other individuals in the space.
Most businesses are aware of the negative effects of contagious presenteeism, but some don’t know why workers are resorting to such actions. Furthermore, they aren’t sure how to curb the controversial practice. This is because the majority of sick employees in competitive sectors keep their ill condition to themselves, making it almost impossible for HR staff to detect accurately.
“In fact, presenteeism appears to be a much costlier problem than its productivity-reducing counterpart, absenteeism. And, unlike absenteeism, presenteeism isn’t always apparent: You know when someone doesn’t show up for work, but you often can’t tell when—or how much—illness or a medical condition is hindering someone’s performance,” said Paul Hemp, Director of Global Thought Leadership at HCL Technologies.
Dealing with Financial Pressure
Before diving into the consequences of contagious presenteeism, it is important to first understand why employees persistently or habitually choose to continue working through periods of sickness. According to an economic news release in March 2016 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 33 percent of workers are not entitled to paid sick-leave benefits. As a result, employees have no choice but to stay engaged in the office.
In most cases, sick individuals (without access to paid sick leave) can still be excused from work under non-paid emergency or medical leave, depending on the terms of one’s employee agreement. For most professionals who are not feeling well and are dealing with financial stress, this is considered to be their last option. When it comes to age demographics, employees between 35 and 44 (54 percent) are most prone to choosing work over resting at home due to strict project deadlines. Additionally, men are up to 50 percent more likely to power through a sickness in the workplace than women.
What about individuals with access to paid leave? The other 66 percent, who receive compensation during sick days, have their own set of personal reasons for working while under the weather. Data from the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) suggests around 42 percent of sick workers fear that calling in sick will cause them to miss deadlines. Interestingly, 25 percent mentioned that their boss expects them to work sick.
“But a key, obvious takeaway from all this is that if you want workers to do the right thing and stay home when they’re sick, it would be best to downplay the possibility that they’ll be somehow punished for doing so,” explained Jessi Singal from New York Magazine.
The Effects of Contagious Presenteeism
The presence of sick employees in the office has numerous effects on other individuals, overall morale and workplace dynamics. With 26 percent of healthy employees highlighting that they would actively ward off ill co-workers near their work area and 24 percent preventing sick co-workers from using their personal work supplies, it is safe to conclude that collaboration is greatly hindered when sick individuals refuse to stay home.
From a monetary perspective, showing up to work sick is costing businesses serious money. The American Productivity Audit revealed that the effects of contagious presenteeism in the country comes with a staggering $150 billion annual price tag. It also costs more for businesses to allow unwell employees to work at the office, than to provide medical treatment.
Implementing Paid Sick-Leave Incentives
A solution that has been proven to be highly effective in addressing contagious presenteeism includes the implementation of paid sick-leave benefits. Some businesses fear that offering paid time off for sick workers will lead to healthy employees exploiting the incentive. But new data from the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that this mindset is irrelevant and could potentially lower morale in professional environments by making employees feel that they are always “forced” to report to work.
Using information from Google Flu Trends, researchers uncovered that between 2003 and 2015 regions with paid sick-leave laws experienced a 5.5 percent decrease in flu cases after the enforcement of such regulations. Data from the report also showed that employees with sufficient amounts of paid sick-leave days were less prone to calling in sick.
Alternatively, to promote productivity during such unforeseen occurrences, some establishments (over 60 percent, according to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management) have started offering temporary telecommuting options. This solution is a win-win for both sides: sick employees can restore their health faster while getting work done, and businesses can avoid a small-scale epidemic, while maintaining output in the workplace.