It’s that time of year where sickness is rampant. Everywhere you look, whether on the train or in the office, there seems to be someone sniffling and coughing. There’s a perception that these folks are stoic heroes, coming into work despite their sickness. Not only are these people often far from their productive best, they also help to spread their germs to everyone else, thus raising the odds of the whole office eventually cascading like a viral deck of cards.
The rationale behind such behaviour is kind of hard to fathom. Not only do most employers offer a number of sick days per year to staff, but there are also usually a range of flexible working tools that allow you to work from home, safe in the knowledge that your man flu is only going to infect the dog.
A landmark piece of research by a team of Canadian scientists underlines just how futile this disease of presenteeism is, to both us as individuals and to our organisations.
It shows that not only are we risking infecting our peers when we come into work with the flu, but our employer is also likely to take quite a hit in terms of productivity.
“Estimating the cost of absenteeism is more tangible than counting the impact of presenteeism,” the author says. “Yet a worker’s absence — or presence — during illness can have both costs and benefits for constituents.”
Participants in the study were asked to rate how their absence from work might affect their colleagues, in addition to quizzing them on their attitude towards absences and how happy they were at work.
Their productivity was measured by asking participants whether their health, (or lack of), influenced their ability to carry out their work to a suitable standard. Participants were also asked to share how often they had gone into work in the last six months when they were feeling under the weather, and also how often they’d stayed at home under the same conditions (there was no mention of working from home in the study).
Should I Stay or Go?
The results showed that there were usually a number of factors that contribute to our decision to go into work or phone in sick. They include things such as a lack of job security or the feeling that you don’t want to let your team mates down.
“Often, a person might feel socially obligated to attend work despite illness,” the author says, “while other employees feel organizational pressure to attend work despite medical discomfort.”
It was only when staying home was seen as a legitimate activity that people reported taking time off when sick. This underlines the importance of having a healthy culture in the workplace where quality of work is the most important thing, not the number of hours spent in the office.
“Although distress caused by work colleagues exhibiting possible symptoms of contagion because of acute illness is frequently reported in the popular press,” the paper concludes, “more subtle and more pervasive everyday instances of going to work while ill likely cost the economy more and do more damage to the aggregate quality of working life.”
The message needs to get out there that coming into work when sick does not make you a superhero. With technology increasingly available to allow people to work from home, employees should be encouraged to do so rather than spread their germs far and wide, which a recent study showed was the case when flu enters a workplace.
What is the culture like in your own workplace? Do you feel pressured to come in even when you’re sick? Let me know in the comments below.