Monday, November 14, 2005

Sick at work

An interesting story in the Sanford (NC) Herald reports a survey done by the office staffing firm, Office Team, showing that 80% of people polled said they very frequently or sometimes showed up sick for work. The responses came from 594 men and women over 18 years who work in offices.
While it is not known locally [i.e., in Sanford] how often people come to work with an illness, doctors suggest it is not an uncommon occurrence.

“I think many of the people who do go to work sick feel they have to be there to contribute,” said Dr. Robert McConville of Sandhills Family Practice.

Colds, flu and other respiratory ailments are the most prevalent illnesses that employees bring with them to work, he said.

Employees who work while ill may fear that work will pile up if they take a day off to rest, or they may simply believe they are not sick enough to miss a day of work, McConville said.
Interestingly, employers didn't seem to realize this was a common occurrence. Office Team also surveyed 150 senior executives. Only 21% believed that employees very frequently worked while feeling sick (versus 49% of employees who reported they did so). This is likely to affect sick leave policies and employer flexibility.

In the setting of pandemic flu there will be two forces working in opposite directions. One will be the desire to keep sick people out of the workplace to protect everyone else. The other will be the need to deal with short staffing. In addition will be the special burden on parents if schools are closed, especially if they are closed in advance of other closings.

So what are the solutions? One would be for businesses to have well thought out "continuity of operations" plans that would allow them to stay operating with a reduced workforce, thus relieving some of the pressure. In particular, by figuring out in advance the most important people and preparing for others to fill in for them would allow those who are sick to stay home. Another would be to have a permissive sick leave policy if there is a pandemic--indeed a rebuttable presumption that if you feel sick you shouldn't come to work. This is a matter of corporate or firm leadership. Failure to do this is likely to hurt the business in the long run during a pandemic because disease spread at work has the potential to cause dramatically more absenteeism for a particular firm than disease spread in the community (instead of being spread out over many businesses it is concentrated in that particular workplace).

In any event, the apparent proclivity for workers to work sick (and the incentives to do so and disincentives to stay home) is a problem. It will need to be addressed and the sooner the better.