Battling Presenteeism

During the coronavirus pandemic, make sure sick employees stay home

By Cristina Rouvalis March 24, 2020
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sick man at work

​For some employees, it's a point of pride to never call out sick. No matter how much they're wheezing and coughing, they soldier on, their perfect attendance record intact—and, if their employer doesn't offer sick pay, their paychecks intact, as well.

Employers often worry about rampant absenteeism and employees who fake illness to nurse a hangover or stay home and watch YouTube videos. But there's a lesser-known problem on the other end of the spectrum: presenteeism, or coming to work sick. Whether it's due to pride in a perfect attendance record or fear of losing pay, presenteeism can be bad for business.

"One of the things I talk to employers about is the cost of presenteeism," said Curtis M. Schaffner, an employment lawyer at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Pittsburgh. "You have the cost of nonproductivity of someone and then the risk of getting other people sick through contagion."

The discussions Schaffner is having with employers about the benefits of sick days come on the heels of a new law in the city of Pittsburgh that requires sick pay for employees. Businesses have 90 days to comply with the new law, which went into effect on March 15. 

Those discussions have taken on an additional sense of urgency as people self-quarantine to slow the rapid and dangerous spread of the novel coronavirus. A new federal law provides paid leave to many workers affected by COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Women More Likely to Take Sick Days

Even when there is not a pandemic coursing around the globe, Schaffner said, employers often overlook the benefits of paid sick days, especially for female employees with young children or older parents. Schaffner believes women tend to take more sick days than men because they are more likely to take on family caretaking responsibilities.

Studies conducted in Europe show this gender difference. Researchers in Finland, for example, found that women were 46 percent more likely than men to call out sick in the city of Helsinki. Another study conducted by the Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom showed that women took almost five sick days a year compared with less than four by their male counterparts. The authors of these studies hypothesized that women take more time off because of caretaking responsibilities, better self-care and other social reasons.

This type of data is lacking in the U.S., where paid sick leave is not mandatory and cannot be easily tracked. But anecdotally, Schaffner and other employment lawyers believe the gender differences are similar in this country.

"Women are often the ones who take care of children when they get sick," he said. "Most employers are worried about people abusing sick-leave policies, but they may end up losing or not hiring talented female employees" if the policies are too restrictive or result in women being passed over for promotions due to absences.

Leave Allowance May Depend on Industry

Companies in the more traditional finance and legal industries tend to be less forgiving toward a sick employee than leading high-tech firms.

Often, employees' use of sick days depends on the leadership culture within the organization, said Fiona Ong, an employment attorney at Shawe Rosenthal in Baltimore. "What is the tone set at the top?" she asks. Leaders in some industries make it clear that employees should do whatever it takes to get the job done regardless of the impact on the employee and his or her personal life, Ong said. "In other industries, they balance the personal needs of employees with their jobs."

Cara Hale Alter, who runs a San Francisco-based communications training company, does consulting work for some high-tech companies that don't even use the words "sick day." "They are offering days off for mental health or personal wellness—no need to actually be sick. The new attitude is that if you are enjoying your life more, you perform at a higher level. It's a new attitude in the work world, and I definitely see it in the younger workforce."

That notion may become more prevalent once employees return to the office after the shock waves caused by the coronavirus dissipate.

"When we get back to the new normal, no matter what that will be, I think companies will re-evaluate," said Nicholas Wyman, a California-based workplace development expert and CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation. "It can be hard to say, 'You are sick. Go home.' But you have to be respectful to other colleagues."

If nothing else, the coronavirus pandemic has caused a major shift in thinking about illness in the workplace, according to Ong. "This could be a turning point," she said. "Maybe some people will go back to business as usual. But I think there will be a higher level of sensitivity for sickness in the workplace. People are now forced to confront the issue in ways they haven't before."

Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.

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