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Sick At Work Official Term: Presenteeism

February 15th, 2008 · 4 Comments

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I went down a link path today and learned a lot about a new term: Presenteeism. Follow along with me and learn about a new way of thinking about having a sick workforce.

Firstly, the NYTimes blog had a post talking about something we’ve all probably thought to ourselves many times over the years: If you’re sick, stay home! After all, it only takes one person bringing in the flu bug to decimate an office for weeks.

I don’t know why more people don’t do this. Instead, as winter moves along, many of us are surrounded by sick co-workers who show up in the office, at lunches and at meetings, determined (or so it seems) to infect the rest of us. This behavior is so prevalent that it now has an official name, “presenteeism,” and it costs companies a lot of money because it makes other people sick. The good news is that some companies have started to recognize the high cost of presenteeism and encourage sick employees to stay home and rest (or work from home if they are up to it).

That led me to a post over at a blog called Unfogged which had this insight:

This has always been a problem with places that don’t have paid sick leave, but I expect that it’s creeping even more into companies that do offer benefits because of the shift from separate vacation and sick leave to “paid time off” banks that combine both. After all, when a person is faced with the calculation of “Do I come in sick and infect my coworkers but save a PTO day so I can go on vacation with my family later this year? Or should I stay home and use a PTO day for the sake of not infecting my coworkers?”, they aren’t being a completely irrational actor by choosing the former.

Finally, this discussion led me to this post from Ezra Klein:

Indeed, they’re not even being a mildly irrational actor. If you’d prefer to sniffle your day through work and use a sick day to take a long weekend, then doing so is perfectly rational. That’s not an impulse an employer will ever be able to squelch. Additionally, as a friend just noted to me over IM, if you come in when mildly sick (and contagious), you build up lots of credibility for the day when you’re really sick and need to stay home for a bit. That’s the American way: We have to leverage working through our mild illnesses to feel justified in taking time off for major sickness.

You could, of course, change this calculation in the margin if all workers got paid sick days and sufficient vacation leave such that they didn’t feel they needed to make a zero sum choice between staying home for a cold and being a good worker, or staying home for a cold and going to Tahiti.

My thoughts on all of this are right in line with the people I’ve been quoting.

I guess we all need to be reminded of this from time to time (certainly management and accounting do) but treating employees like human beings instead of just expense lines on a budget report can sometimes have tangible benefits to the bottom line… or at least, overall productivity.

Instead of a draconian absentee policy… thinking pro-actively and logically would lead businesses to enact lenient leave policies. Again, that one person who stays home instead of bringing the flu bug into the office just makes sense. By encouraging people to look after themselves… by giving workers the benefit of the doubt now and again… it might allow a few of your slackers to play hookey now and again.

But it could also save you weeks/months/seasons of optimum productivity.

Related posts:

  1. A Clean Cubicle Is A Healthy Cubicle
  2. How To Look Busy At Work
  3. STAY AWAKE!!!
  4. 15 Weirdest Work Stories of 2007
  5. The Working Parent’s Stay At Home Calculator
  6. Working Vs. Stay-At-Home Parents, A Cost Analysis

Tags: Health · Productivity · WorkLife

  • Richard Rinyai

    The human body was designed to need rest during sick periods. You really shouldn’t be working during this time, since you will prolong the sickness.

    Here’s a post I recently wrote on this topic:


    Richard Rinyai

  • kat

    My problem is that my BOSS is the one who keeps coming in while sick, coughing all over the place, and infecting everyone else in our small office. Not only does it get us sick, but he sets the standard that people should suffer through sickness at work. Ugh.

  • Brian

    Wow. Hadn’t thought of that angle. But I see what you’re saying… because he comes in and suffers through, the rest of you know you’ll be looked down on if you don’t do the same. Bad management all around.

  • rach

    i wanna no if your on sick with a doctors sick note whats your rights about your employer ringing you every day??