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Do You Go to Work Sick?

Kate Lorenz, Editor

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Admit it, you've played hooky a time or two to take a "mental health day" or run errands.

So why do you insist on going to work when you are legitimately ill? Did you ever consider that your boss would rather you call in sick than come into the office?

In CareerBuilder's survey "Out of the Office," more than one-third of U.S. workers say they played hooky from work over the last twelve months. Thirty-five percent of workers admit to calling in sick when they felt well at least once during the last year and one-in-ten said they did so three or more times.

Why are they calling in sick? The top three motivators for faking include attending to personal errands and appointments, catching up on sleep and simply relaxing. The reasons also include attending a child's event, bad weather, making plans with friends and going on a job interview.

Despite the incidents of faking it, more than one-third of employees report coming into work "all of the time" even if they are sick or not feeling well, according to a January 2005 report by the Society for Human Resource Managers (SHRM).

Employers are beginning to realize this trend, know as "presenteeism," is producing a significant drain on productivity. This lost productivity occurs when employees come to work suffering from any kind of illness or other medical condition, but not fully functioning.

"Sick employees in the office are unlikely to be able to put forth their best effort and pose a special concern since they may be contagious and pass the illness along to co-workers, therefore putting them at risk for sickness and negatively impacting their productivity," SHRM reported.

Extensive research on presenteeism shows that paid sick leave policies reduce the rate of contagious infections in the workplace by isolating sick workers at home; that failure to take time off to regain one's health can actually lead to longer absences because health worsens; and that as an illness spreads within the workplace, additional workers can be affected raising the total employee absence time.

A CCH study found close to 40 percent of employers said presenteeism is a problem in their organizations. A Cornell University study said presenteeism could account for up to 60 percent of the cost of worker illness, more than the cost of absenteeism. And that cost is more than $150 billion a year according to the October 2004 Harvard Business Review.

Unfortunately, it's harder to identify. You know when someone doesn't show up for work, but you often can't tell when, or how much, poor health hurts on-the-job performance.

Health problems that result in presenteeism are relatively harmless, including seasonal allergies, asthma, headaches, depression, back pain, arthritis and gastrointestinal disorders. But when people don't feel good, they simply don't perform at their best and are less able to work effectively with others.

Another pitfall? Contagious workers can infect other workers. Furthermore, workers from one company can infect workers in another. For example, the contagious Fed Ex worker who visits an office could not only drop off an important package, but can also deliver a slew of germs.

Bottom line: Stay home. If you feel like you can't fully detach yourself from work, be available by e-mail and voice mail.

Kate Lorenz is the article and advice editor for She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

Last Updated: 24/09/2007 - 3:50 PM

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