Having a sick employee at work is bad for business – they don’t perform to their potential and can sometimes infect others. We all know it – so why do so many of us feel obligated to go to work when we’re sick?
Management consultant Al Lutchin says developing trusting relationships between bosses and staff encourages people to use sick days honestly.
The answer is complex but the solutions are fairly straightforward, say several experts in the growing study of the phenomenon, known academically as “presenteeism.”
Dr. Rick Hackett, McMaster University’s Canada Research Chair of Organizational Behaviour and Human Performance, says research shows that job instability, lack of paid sick days, peer pressure or intense motivation as among the top reasons people show up to work when their health dictates otherwise.
“People with a strong sense of personal control are much more likely to show up at work with an ailment because they’re driven,” he said Tuesday. “Others who are not so inclined, a minor headache might be enough to set them off.”
From a manager’s perspective, having unwell employees at work is double-sided coin. One one hand, having them at 50 per cent capacity might be better for the organization in the short term than not having them at all. However, employees who regularly come in when they’re not feeling well are more likely to suffer burnout or more serious illness, resulting in more days off in the long term.
Methods for measuring how much presenteeism costs businesses are still in their infancy and rely heavily on subjective reports of how often employees they attend work while feeling unwell.
According to a 2009 Concordia University paper by Dr. Gary Johns, previous research indicated presenteeism cost the U.S. economy $150 billion in 2004, measuring health care costs and reduced productivity. The paper also cited a 2005 Swedish study in which 53 per cent of respondents said they’d gone to work despite feeling that they should have stayed home due to their states of health.
Management consultant Alexander Lutchin says establishing trust in the workplace is a key element in reducing presenteeism. Employees who think their boss will believe them when they call in sick are more likely to be honest, and more likely to work hard for the company the rest of the time.
“People want to be treated with respect and dignity, they want to be valued,” Lutchin, CEO of Career Compass Canada, told YourHamiltonBiz.
He suggested employers develop some guidelines so workers know when it’s OK not to come to work. Being flexible about how and where work is done – allowing employees to work from home on occasion, for example – doesn’t hurt either, he said.
“You don’t want people feeling stressed out or guilty for not going to work when they’re sick,” he said. “It’s about knowing that it’s OK to call your boss and say, ‘I honestly can’t come in today, I’m just not well.’”
Dr. Hackett has been at McMaster for 27 years, and says he goes to work even when allergies have hoarsened his voice. But the flexibility in his job to assign group work, show films or invite a guest speaker, helped him continue to be productive, he said. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want a nurse or air-traffic controlled with a migraine to feel an obligation to work, he said.
“In that type of environment there needs to be some understanding of when attendance is a desirable thing, and when it’s not.”
In implementing a “results-only work environment,” Hamilton’s Mabel’s Labels asks employees to deliver on agreed-upon targets instead of requiring them at work between certain hours, or in some cases, at all. Co-founder Jule Cole says that change means there’s no reason for sick people to ever be at work, and says giving people the added trust has paid off.
City Manager Chris Murray says flexibility with workers breeds better productivity.
“Everyone is being so accountable and so responsible,” she said. “ If you take away just being at work, people know they have to deliver.”
Hamilton City Manager Chris Murray, on the other hand, is balancing a different problem – trying to reduce employee sick days from an average of 15 per year while making sure people still know to stay home when they must.
After looking at the City’s own workforce and the available literature, he too has come to believe that giving employees more flexibility will pay off in productivity.
“Increasingly, individuals are finding themselves sandwiched between the needs of their children and parents,” he noted. “It is reasonable to expect people to take vacation time to look after parents who are ill? What are we doing to ensure that great performance occurs at work but that we respect people’s family life?
“The vast majority of people, if treated fairly, will return the fairness in spades… When you create rigid systems that treat people unfairly, you don’t get the kinds of results you want."