Benefits & Compensation News

Why do sick employees come to work?

In the last few years, “presenteeism” has become an even bigger concern for many employers than absenteeism. Although many HR/benefits managers hate the admittedly overused term, presenteeism is nevertheless a real issue in almost every workplace.

Most commonly,  presenteeism takes the form of employees coming to work sick. They’re  unproductive and endanger co-workers. Meanwhile, the employee is not forced to use a sick day. A bad deal for employers all the way around.

A recent survey by LifeCare revealed that 93% of employees (polled from 1,500 organizations) admit that they at least ocassionally come to work when they’re sick enough to stay home. More important, the study looked at the reasons why folks do it.

Troubling rationales

The No. 1 reason employees cited for coming to work sick was a belief that they’d be “letting other people down” if they call out. Nearly 30% of respondents cited this as their main reason. Beyond that, the top responses were:

  • It’s too risky, due to office politics or culture, to take time off (26%)
  • The employee is too busy at work to be able to stay home a day (15%)
  • The employee saves up sick days for childcare/eldercare emergencies (12%), and
  • The employee saves up sick days to use as extra vacation time (8%).

Many of these rationales are troubling to HR/benefits managers.

In the first place, supervisors who hassle employees about taking legitimate sick time are, at best, being pennywise and poundfoolish.  Presenteeism costs more than absenteeism, once you figure in the uncharged sick days, lack of productivity and risk of other employees getting sick.

You have more power than you think to change your company culture if the “tough it out” mentality still applies to people who come in sick. When upper management is confronted with the real dollars and cents of presenteeism, reducing the problem usually becomes a priority. At the very least, firms shouldn’t invite it.

In terms of supervisor- and employee-education, repetition of the “stay home if you’re sick” message is the key. Eventually, it’ll sink in.

Of course, there’s still the problem — as evidenced by the survey — of employees who misuse their sick days by trying to hoard them for other purposes.  Adopting PTO, no-fault absence policies or use-it-lose-it sick time are the three most common ways of reducing the risk, but be aware that each of these policies have risks of their own.

At the end of the day, the more open the lines of communication are between management and employees, the less prevalent the presenteeism problem becomes.

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  • Presenteeism exists because the foundation of our workplace is still based in the 1950s.

    As long as we believe that the more hours someone works, the more productive they are, presenteeism will exist.

    As long as we stigmatize and judge people that prefer to get their work done outside the traditional office setting, presenteeism will exist.

    As long as people judge each other for how they spend their time (“Did you see Cheryl took THREE sick days last week?!”), presenteeism will exist.

    If the workplace was focused on results and results ONLY, no one would care who was in the office and who wasn’t, or who was sick and who wasn’t. There would be a higher amount of energy being focused on the work, and business would be better for it.

    Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson
    Creators of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE)
    Authors of the forthcoming book “WHY WORK SUCKS AND HOW TO FIX IT”

  • Sally

    Our company doesn’t have sick days. This being the case, employees are forced to use their vacation time if they go out sick. The company policy states that employees cannot take a day off without pay, and this forces employees to make a difficult choice. Needless to say, 9 times out of 10 they will decide to come in sick rather than use valuable vacation time. I can’t blame them, it’s no vacation being sick.

  • Jackie T – SPHR

    Cali and Jody – all I can say is “Amen….Amen…Amen”. I absolutely agree! If the focus was on the quality of the work…even the quantity of the work, but not the number of hours an employee is sitting at a desk “being present”, we would have a happier, healthier and better balanced workforce.

  • Lupe

    Sally, our company does not have sick days either and employees are also forced to use their vacation time for sick days. Just recently an employee has been absent a total of four days in a year. One day was becasue her husband was in the emergency room and three days of documented FMLA leave for the employee. And the HR Manager docked the employee for “absenteeism.” The company sends out a message that even if you are sick you should come to work. Maybe I should forward this email to the HR Manager. The company focuses more on hours worked instead of focusing on the quality of the work or the quantity of the work.

  • Alfonso

    I’m the HR manager of a fairly large family owned company. You can call off sick,but if you don’t return with a Dr’s note you are disciplined by our “point system”. 1 point for no note, 1/2 point with a note. If you accumulate 3 points in any 90 day period, guess what? the punishment is 3 days suspension w/o pay. Is this really fair or what? I’m expected to enforce this? If you get 4 points that an additional 5 days off. After that if you record another absence excused or unexcused it’s termination. Are we in the stone age or are there other companies out there like this one?

  • Helen

    The medical field will tell you that most times you have already spread your “sickies” before you are in a full-blown, stay at home sick mode. If I come down with a headache I’m not going to stay home but a week later I may discover that I was contagious with something that laid dormant for a week. Alfonso, one problem I see with your company’s policy is that it requires people to go to a doctor every time they stay home with the sniffles. Not all sick days call for doctor’s office visits. I think your company policy is pretty rigid and not good for company morale.

  • Ed Blumberg

    All of our employees usually come to work when they’re sick because we don’t have paid sick days. If you lose a day due to illness you’re out a days pay. When we were fortunate enouh to be working overtime, you not only lost a days pay, you lost your overtime too. If we call in sick and don’t return with a Doctors’ note we get disciplined by the points system. If you accumulate too many points, you’re placed on disciplinary suspension which is usually 3 days off without pay.I hope that the new administration passes the paid sick day bill. It will be a blessing.