Companies Urged to Combat "Presenteeism" During Flu Season

Oct. 25, 2004
Nearly 40 percent of employers are report that employees work while sick, possibly exposing coworkers to illness and potentially slowing production.

Millions of Americans could be at increased risk of catching the flu this season as a result of an unexpected shortfall in the availability of the flu vaccination and the rising threat posed by employees coming to work sick. As those who catch the flu also may spread the virus, CCH Inc. (CCH) is alerting employers to be particularly aware of "presenteeism," when employees come to work when they are ill.

According to the findings of the 2004 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, 39 percent of employers surveyed report presenteeism is a problem in their organization. Presenteeism is a problem for employers not only because of employees' lowered productivity, but issues of contagion to an otherwise healthy workforce. Organizations that have low employee morale are at even greater risk of having sick workers on the job, with 52 percent of companies with poor or fair morale reporting presenteesim is a problem.

"With a serious flu season looming, the idea of the 'hero worker' that manages to punch in for a full-day's work, despite illness, needs to be discouraged. Being in contact with contagious individuals jeopardizes the health and productivity of all employees. Employers need to emphasize to employees that while they need them at work, they first want a healthy workplace," said Lori Rosen, J.D., CCH workplace analyst and author of "HR Networking: Work-Life Benefits."

Rosen recommends following this tip from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) "Good Health Guide": "stay home when you are sick."

The concern, however, is that some traditional absence control and sick day policies may inadvertently encourage employee presenteeism. Organizations that adhere to traditional sick day policies, and take disciplinary action to enforce them, may be making it difficult for employees to do the right thing. According to the CCH survey, disciplinary action is the single most common absence control program, used by 91 percent of organizations surveyed.

"For example, in an organization that allots each employee five sick days a year, and takes disciplinary action on the sixth absence, an employee who has been wiped out with the flu for several days may choose to come to work ill rather than risk the discipline," noted Rosen. "This is especially true at the beginning of the year, when employees are concerned about depleting all of their allowed leave in just a month or two. Unfortunately, that time also is the height of flu season."

Some employees can offset the risk of a poor health year if their employer allows them to carry over the sick days that they didn't use in healthier years. The CCH survey found, however, that employers are cutting back on this option. The number of employers allowing employees to carry over sick time from one year to the next has dropped from 51 percent in 2000 to 37 percent in 2004, according to CCH. As a result, employees that may have accumulated sick days this year may not have access to these in the new year.

Employers are, however, taking other steps to help employees effectively manage time off. To help employees deal with various health and personal issues that arise from year to year, 63 percent of employers offer a Paid Leave Bank, also known as Paid Time Off (PTO), under which personal, vacation and sick days are combined into a single bank of days that the employee can use in any way he or she needs.

"With a PTO program, the employee has more discretion on how to use the days, so if he's sick, he can take a day from the bank and stay home, without the fear of being reprimanded or running out of sick days at the beginning of the year," Rosen explained.

Among the steps employers can take to help ensure a healthier workplace and minimize flu season disruptions:

Foster a healthy environment. Speak with managers to ensure they're fostering an environment that makes ill employees comfortable to ask to leave the workplace or, better yet, not report to work in the first place.

Set a good example. Managers should be urged not to show up at the workplace with the flu as employees may otherwise simply view the message to stay home as lip service.

Set guidelines and make them visible to employees. Help them understand under what conditions they should stay home, and when it's safe to return to work.

Revisit your EAP and healthcare support services. Determine if there is a hotline or Web site you can communicate to your employees where they can access FAQs, get guidance on taking care of their health during flu season and get more information about related healthcare issues.

Review absence control policies to ensure they are not counterproductive. Programs such as disciplinary action need to be assessed to ensure they are not making ill employees feel required to report to work.

Post helpful tips on how to avoid spreading germs. Guidance is offered on the CDC Web site at

Work with your employees and facilities group to keep common areas clean. Make sure that common areas of the facilities are cleaned regularly. This may even include cleaning conference rooms between meetings.

Recognize helpful employees. Consider bonuses, rewards or some other type of recognition for employees who step in to help do extra work for ill colleagues.

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