Whenever the topic of sick leave comes up, employers are quick to raise the specter of malingering to get out of work. But a recent report on CNN suggests that showing up when sick may be costing plenty, too. “Presenteeism” is not just a financial problem but a public health one particularly germane to influenza:
Practically every workplace has one – the employee who comes to the job aching, coughing and sneezing.
So-called “presenteeism,” or going to work when sick, is a persistent problem at more than half of U.S. workplaces and costs U.S. business a whopping $180 billion a year, research shows.
Like its more notorious counterpart absenteeism, it takes on growing importance as employers try to keep an eye on productivity and the bottom line, experts say.
“Employers are increasingly concerned about the threat that sick employees pose in the workplace,” said Brett Gorovsky, an analyst at CCH, a Riverwoods, Ill.-based provider of business and corporate law information and a division of Wolters Kluwer.
“Presenteeism can take a very real hit on the bottom line, although it is often unrecognized,” he said.
Recognition of the issue is growing, however, as CCH research shows 56 percent of human resource executives see presenteeism as a problem. That’s up from 39 percent making the same complaint two years ago, Gorovsky said.
Presenteeism costs employers in terms of lowered productivity, prolonged illness by sick workers and the potential spread of illness to colleagues and customers, experts say.(CNN)
Formally this is a generic problem, decision-making under uncertainty. A perfect policy would be one where only the sick stay home, but there are two ways for the policy to be imperfect: sick people show up to work or well people stay home and say they are sick. There is a cost to both consequences of a less than perfect policy and it can be difficult to estimate them since we don’t know either how many people who stay home are well enough to work at full productivity and without making others sick or the reverse. In the case of an influenza pandemic the costs go up dramatically because sick workers who show up spread the disease in the community as well as the workplace. When that affects the economy, that also adds to the cost of the employer.
We all know this is common. I’ve done it and I’m guessing most of you have, too. As the article at CNN points out, workplaces have gotten leaner, which means that each person believes (rightly or wrongly) that they are more important than before when there was some redundancy for their function:
As often as two-thirds of the time, sick people go to work because they feel they have too much work to do, according to the CCH study.
The second-most common reason is workers believe no one else is available to cover their workload, CCH said.
“With corporate downsizings of the past creating a leaner workforce, employees often feel they have to show up for work, whether it’s out of guilt over staying home or concerns over job security,” Gorovsky said.
In fact, presenteeism is often encouraged, as employees may be honored for perfect attendance, experts note.
Then there is almost half the US work force who have no paid sick leave. In the vaudeville joke where the robber points a gun at his victim with the order, “Your money or your life,” the response of too many workers is, “Take my life, need my money.” There is a move by some Democrats to require employers with 15 workers or more to have a minimum of 7 paid sick days a year.
I can hear the screams of the business community already. A reflex, no doubt, going through their Republican spinal cords without touching any higher centers in the nervous system. Sometimes people just don’t know what’s good for them.