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The Decline of Sick Days

By George Waggott, founder, Roberto Fonseca-Velazquez, summer law student, George Waggott Law

With the rise of remote work blurring the line between work and home lives, a growing number of workers are choosing to work while being sick, without announcing it. This trend is known as “presenteeism” – showing up for work when you're not necessarily feeling up to it, and potentially doing poor quality work as a result. What causes this? Workplace norms, fear of unemployment, and fear of missing out on job opportunities for career advancement are just a few of the reasons that workers might opt to stay online, even when they feel unwell.

Leading business thinkers say that one reason for this trend is that employees are expected to be “always connected”. You’re expected to be always accessible, because “where else could you be?” says Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow. “There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.” “When everything happens in the same place, you no longer have that geographic boundary” between work and home, says Barbara Larson, a business professor at Northeastern University.

Presenteeism is not necessarily a new concept. In 2010, in the United Kingdom, one study showed that 24% of employees said they witnessed presenteeism, or working while sick, in the workplace in the prior 12 months. And in 2014, on Stanford University study found that call center employees who worked from home put in more days because, among other reasons, they worked on days when they were sick.  However, presenteeism has arguably become more common in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and rise of remote work. According to on survey of health and wellbeing at work conducted by UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, in 2020 as many as 83% of employees surveyed said they witnessed presenteeism or working while sick.

What’s the problem with working while sick so long as the risk of infecting others no longer exists? Well, Concordia University research Gary Johns wrote in the Journal of Organizational Behavior that “presenteeism is important in that it might exacerbate existing medical conditions, damage the quality of working life and lead to impressions of ineffectiveness at work due to reduced productivity.” This is consistent with research which shows that working while sick can have a significant economic and productivity costs for a company. Ron Goetzel, director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, estimates that workers who show up to work while sick potentially double the cost for an employer versus those staying at home. Even non-contagious afflictions like migraines, Goetzel told Bloomberg, lead to more than $45 billion in losses each year in the U.S. and Europe.

Organizations can take steps to combat presenteeism by encouraging employees to take time off while sick. Many companies have adopted policies that group sick days, family emergencies, doctor’s appointments, mental health days, personal days, family obligations and even vacation time into discretionary paid time off (PTO). While the “how sick are you?” standard is often left up to the worker, companies can play a role in encouraging staff to take the time they need to recover from an illness, or to address their unique personal situation.  In order to ensure consistency and fairness, as well as compliance with applicable laws, it is important for employers to have written policies in place regarding sick leave and time off. Further, while having good clear policies is one thing, it is just as important that companies administer these rules consistently. One related point which workplace experts have recommended is for employers to keep a close eye on their employees’ physical and mental health, both in and out of the office. Therefore, if a supervisor notices that an employee is not doing well, they should encourage their employee to take a break, which may mean taking a sick day away from work.

The Adecco Group has compiled a list of reasons as to why employees should utilize their workplace’s sick day policy and call in sick. Their listed reasons include the following:

1.     When working while sick, employees will be less productive and are likely to spend twice as much time to get the same amount of work done.

2.     Working while sick has a negative impact on brain function.

3.     Logging in when you feel unwell can have a negative impact on a workplace and its dynamics, possibly leading to miscommunication between team members.

4.     Stepping away can help you return to work feeling refreshed and enthusiastic about getting started again.

5.     Working while unwell can create a lasting culture of presenteeism.

A constructive conversation between employers and employees around sick days can lead to higher productivity and better quality of work.

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