Year after year, as cold and flu season approaches, employers, their managers and their HR departments remind workers to stay home if they're sick.
Year after year, employees come to work anyway—with bad colds, full-blown flu and other maladies.
In fact, 9 in 10 employees admit going to work sick, according to new research from global staffing firm Accountemps, a Robert Half company.
They do it despite warnings that by coming to work, sick employees risk infecting others, who, in turn, can go home and infect their families. All it takes are cold or flu germs left on the workplace's microwave or elevator buttons, bathroom faucet handles, coffee machines or refrigerator handles to spread illness.
Accountemps' online survey, which included responses from 2,800 workers employed in offices in 28 U.S. cities, found that:
- One-third said they always go to the office with cold or flu symptoms.
- Most employees who admitted to going to work while sick live in Charlotte, N.C., and Miami.
- 54 percent of those who report to the office with cold or flu symptoms said they do so because they have too much work to do. Most respondents who said they report to the office while ill because of an overwhelming workload were from New York City, Minneapolis and Miami.
- 40 percent said they went to work ill because they didn't want to use a sick day.
- Miami, Phoenix and San Diego professionals felt the most pressure from their bosses to be present when sick.
- More employees ages 25 to 40 reported going to work sick than respondents of other ages.
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"Whether it's due to large workloads, pressure from the boss or because they can't afford to take time off, it's all too common for employees to come to [work] feeling sick when they really should be resting," said Michael Steinitz, senior executive director of Accountemps. "Staying home when you've got a cold or the flu is the best way to avoid spreading germs to others and fight the illness faster."
That's easier said than done, however.
Too Much Pressure to Go to Work
One of the biggest reasons that people show up to work sick, according to workplace experts, is because they're afraid.
Afraid that they'll miss out on pay by staying home. Afraid that managers will suspect the sick worker is just slacking off. Afraid that too much absenteeism will lead to a negative performance review.
"I believe the prevailing answer is money," said Terri L. Rhodes, CEO of the San Diego-based Disability Management Employer Coalition. "Many employees do not have access to sick leave or have exhausted all available sick leave. The majority of workers cannot take time off without pay."
While there's a proliferation of state and local sick-leave laws, employers can feel burdened by the significant administrative and compliance challenges that come with them. In fact, nearly half of states have laws to wholly or partly prohibit local paid-sick-leave ordinances. The theory behind this is that less regulation and fewer administrative burdens on employers is better for the economy.
"There is currently a lot of discussion around employees not being able to miss work due to financial issues," said Daniel R. Stern, an attorney with labor and employment law firm Dykema in San Antonio. "If employers don't provide paid time for illness or injury, employees may have to come to work to avoid losing pay."
Messages from the Top
Workers sometimes perceive—whether the perception is real or imagined—that managers question whether the employee is actually ill or just doesn't want to work.
"Often, when employees are absent, co-workers may comment on whether they believe the absence is legitimate or made up to get some extra time off," Stern said.
Workers may also fear that managers frown on absences, even if they are related to illness.
"Management may make comments about how important it is for all employees to be at work and for everyone to do their part," Stern said. "You very seldom hear of a company president announcing during flu season that employees are encouraged to or must stay home if feeling ill."
Rhodes added, "Unfortunately, there is still a widespread mentality in many business cultures that if it's just a cold, for example, be tough. A change in leadership comes from the top; senior leaders need to say it's OK to stay home when sick, and then demonstrate it."
But there's little doubt that if the boss isn't leading by example—and he or she is coming to work sick—then nonmanagement employees will feel they must do the same.
"Bosses should set an example by taking time off when they're under the weather, encouraging employees to do the same and offering those with minor ailments the ability to work from home," Steinitz said. "Bringing in temporary professionals can keep assignments on track during staff absences."
Finally, attendance, or lack of it, is addressed in many annual performance reviews. An employee may avoid being out for extended periods—even if illness warrants the absence—for fear the manager might question his or her dedication or work ethic.
"Attendance is usually a factor in employee evaluations, and some employees want to avoid anything in the evaluation that is negative," Stern said.