Managers, Employees View Presenteeism Differently

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 2, 2009
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Office employees report to work when they feel sick more frequently than their managers realize, according to two surveys from OfficeTeam, a staffing service that specializes in placing administrative professionals.

Although 45 percent of 522 workers surveyed around the United States said they “very frequently” go to work when they are sick, only 17 percent of senior executives thought employees did so.

The surveys also showed 30 percent of employees go to work feeling ill “somewhat frequently,” while 57 percent of executives think they do so “somewhat frequently.”

‘Feeling ill’ was left to individual interpretation, according to Brandi Britton, regional vice president of OfficeTeam.

The findings are based on phone interviews conducted January 2009 with full- or part-time office workers age 18 and older, and a survey of 150 senior executives at the nation’s largest companies.

“You are definitely finding more individuals today that are feeling the need to come in to work … because they don’t want to be ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ in a difficult economic climate,” Britton told SHRM Online. “They don’t want to not be there,” she added, but noted that working while feeling ill can spread germs or affect productivity.

In 2005, when OfficeTeam conducted a similar survey with 594 employees and 150 senior executives, 49 percent of workers said they “very frequently” show up to work feeling sick. Only 8 percent said they never did so. In that survey, just 21 percent of HR, finance and marketing executives thought sick employees came to work “very frequently” when ill.

Britton attributed the apparent disconnect between employees and executives to individuals not expressing they do not feel well.

“In addition to that, employers or managers don’t take a particular stance on how individuals should operate when they’re not feeling well,” she added.

Another survey, conducted in May 2008 for Cigna, found that in the previous six months, 62 percent of workers went to work even though they were sick or had other issues.

There was an average of nearly seven days of presenteeism per employee during that period, according to Cigna’s report, The 2008 Health Leadership Series: Absenteeism and Presenteeism.

That’s more than an average of 2.4 hours spent in a typical week on personal issues such as talking with a teacher from their child’s school, making doctor appointments and talking with an aging parent’s caretaker.

The Cigna findings were based on random telephone interviews with 1,149 full- or part-time workers in the continental United States. Respondents included 61 percent white collar workers, 25 percent blue collar workers, and 12 percent service workers; 2 percent did not classify themselves.

Two-fifths of workers attributed their work ethic, dedication or a belief their company/co-workers needed them for going to work despite feeling ill or having other issues. One in four did so because they needed the money.

Other reasons, according to Cigna’s report, included a belief they could “tough it out” (8 percent); couldn’t find someone to cover their shift (8 percent); a looming deadline (6 percent); they ran out of or didn’t want to use paid time off/sick/vacation days; difficulty in catching up after time off (4 percent); lack of sick time or paid time off (4 percent); an important meeting (4 percent); and fear of being fired (4 percent).

Manager as Model

An employee who sees his or her manager working when ill is going to be less likely to take the time off when they don’t feel well, OfficeTeam’s Britton observed.

“People are going to mirror what their supervisors do for the most part, and they may think that’s what’s expected of them because that’s what the manager does,” she said.

Britton suggests creating an environment where employees are encouraged to stay home when they’re not feeling well by managers:

  • Communicating expectations that they prefer employees stay home when sick to ensure a quicker recovery and lessen the likelihood of spreading contagious illness such as colds and flu.
  • Setting an example. Employees note whether a manager’s actions match his or her words.
  • Providing options for how the work gets done, such as allowing employees to work from home.
  • Cross-training other workers or using temporary professionals to keep projects on track when employees are out for more than a few days.

Employees also can take precautions against co-workers who drag themselves in, Britton said, by keeping their distance from ill colleagues, avoiding contact with items such as phones and calculators that an ill employee touches, and encouraging fellow workers to stay home when they are ill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reminds people that it’s not too late to get a flu shot. Flu activity is on the rise in the United States, according to the CDC, which notes that flu season usually peaks in February but can continue into April and May.

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

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