Sense of Duty Beckons Sick Employees to Work

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 29, 2008
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A sense of obligation to co-workers is the top reason why some employees drag themselves into work even when they’re sick, according to a recent survey.

The findings, released April 9, 2008, are from an annual online survey that LifeCare Inc. conducted in March with employees from its 1,500 client organizations. This was the first time in the survey’s three-year history that a sense of obligation to co-workers was the leading response.

It found:

  • 29 percent said others depend on them and they don’t want to let their fellow workers down.
  • 26 percent said office politics or culture makes it too risky to take time off.
  • 15 percent said they are too busy to stay home.
  • 12 percent said they are saving sick days for child care or elder care emergencies.
  • 8 percent said they are saving sick days for vacation time.
  • 7 percent said they do not work when sick, a percentage similar to LifeCare’s 2006 and 2007 findings.

In 2006, a sense of obligation to co-workers was the reason 25 percent gave for reporting to work sick, second only to feeling it was too risky to take time off from work (32 percent).

“It’s well known that employees who work sick are actually creating a greater risk for their co-workers and a greater risk of lost productivity for their organizations,” LifeCare CEO Peter G. Burki said in a press release.

“Even so, our workplace cultures don’t seem to be getting the message through that taking a little time off when you’re ill is not only wiser but also acceptable.”

However, employers increasingly are taking the stance that sick employees should stay home, according to LifeCare, citing studies that have suggested presenteeism costs U.S. businesses $150 billion or more annually in lost productivity.

In LifeCare’s 2007 presenteeism survey, the top three reasons for reporting to work sick: Employees said it was too risky to take time off from work (31 percent); they were too busy to stay home (23 percent), and they were saving sick days for child care or elder care emergencies (18 percent).

In findings released in January 2008 from the 2007 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, too much work or impending deadlines was the No. 1 reason respondents gave for coming to work sick.

Eighty-seven percent of U.S. employers in the CCH survey reported that sick employees who show up to work suffer from short-term illnesses such as a cold or flu, which can be spread easily, SHRM Online reported. Sending sick employees home is the most common approach employers take to reduce presenteeism, the CCH survey found.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

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