Nearly half of employees (48 percent) who responded to a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) poll said they had reported to work sick in the past 12 months because “they felt they had to” or else their work would not get done.
Such a finding is of particular concern as organizations take steps to address concerns about an H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic.
SHRM’s “Pressure to Work: The Employees’ Perspective” poll included responses from 605 full-time or part-time employed United States residents. The survey was fielded for a two-week period ending Jan. 12, 2009.
The top reasons employee respondents gave SHRM for reporting to work sick included the lack of a replacement to cover for them, cited by 48 percent of respondents, and their workload or deadlines, reported by 39 percent. “Clearly, employees feel that in this economic climate it is disadvantageous to let their work go and risk not meeting deadlines,” said Evren Esen, manager of SHRM’s Survey Research Center. “Today’s employees have a hard time completely detaching from their work when they are away from the office. Even if they do take a sick day, over half still stay connected by checking their e-mail.”
One out of 10 respondents said they feared they would be subject to discipline for staying home.
According to the employee respondents surveyed by SHRM:
The lack of leave is particularly problematic during challenging economic times. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 61 percent of private-industry workers received paid sick leave in March 2008, leaving many workers with only one choice—report for work or lose income.
But many organizations try to discourage working while sick. Nearly half (49 percent) of employee respondents told SHRM that their organization tries to create a culture that discourages “presenteeism,” reporting to work sick or otherwise distracted.
“Employers need to discourage both the ‘hero employee’—and even more so, the ‘hero boss’—who try to muddle their way through the day when they shouldn’t,” said Brett Gorovsky, employment law analyst for CCH, a tax and business law information company, in an April 29, 2009 statement. “Employees are sensitive to the differences between what management says and what it means, and when they see their supervisors coming in sick, they’re convinced that’s what’s expected of them also.
“The bottom line for most organizations is that it’s in everyone’s best interest for sick workers to simply stay away, even in normal times,” Gorovsky added.
But as the H1N1 “swine flu” virus spreads, it becomes even more critical.
The possibility of a swine flu pandemic should be a wake-up call to the many organizations that have not developed a plan to cope with widespread employee illness, according to CCH.
Unlike natural disasters and some terrorist events, an influenza pandemic would be widespread, affecting multiple areas of the United States and other countries. A pandemic would be an extended event, with multiple waves of outbreaks in the same geographic area. Each outbreak could last six to eight weeks. Waves of outbreaks might occur over a year or more.
“A pandemic could affect as many as 40 percent of the workforce during periods of peak illness. Employees could be absent because they are sick [or] they must care for sick family members or for children if schools or day care centers are closed, or they are afraid to come to work,” said CCH Workplace Analyst Heidi Henson in the statement. “Lack of continuity planning can result in a cascade of failures as employers attempt to address challenges of a pandemic with insufficient resources and employees who might not be adequately trained in the jobs they will be asked to perform.”
In 2007, the CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey found that only 27 percent of companies had a plan in the event that a large percentage of employees become ill. This was almost a 100 percent increase over 2006, when only 14 percent of companies surveyed had such plans. However, it still represented just over one in four organizations.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager at SHRM.
Managers, Employees View Presenteeism Differently, HR News, Feb. 2, 2009
How Organizations with Paid Sick Leave and PTO Plans Deal With Unscheduled Time Off, SHRM Poll, Nov. 6, 2008
Sense of Duty Beckons Sick Employees to Work, HR News, April 29, 2008Beware the Ill Effects of Sick Employees at Work, SHRM Online, Jan. 18, 2008