How to Stop Workers from Showing up Sick

Three ways to avoid falling back into old, and unhealthy, office habits
Kristen Sears
A dog sleeps in bed with high fever, covered by a blanket.

Watery eyes, nasal congestion, sore throat, cough. These are symptoms we’re all too familiar with—though not as much during the pandemic. The common cold and flu mostly disappeared over the last year thanks to stay-at-home orders, mask-wearing and generous dollops of hand sanitizer.

But with pandemic restrictions easing and people going back to the office, colds and the flu are back.

Will that mean a return of sickness “presenteeism”—showing up to work ill? Matthias Spitzmuller, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business, hopes not.

“Over the last year, people witnessed the absence of a flu season. The contagion that happened at work, in schools and daycare facilities didn’t take place,” he says. “The question now is, will organizations and employees heed this learning that the pandemic has provided us?”

Presenteeism is estimated to cost the Canadian economy billions in productivity. Employees come to work sick and spread their virus among colleagues. The result: a cycle in which many workers aren’t operating at their best.

It could get even harder to avoid presenteeism this winter. The economy is growing yet many companies can’t find enough workers. “Renewed pressures to work the long hours, to ignore illnesses and battle through may reassert themselves,” Spitzmuller says.

So what can businesses do to break the cycle of presenteeism? Spitzmuller has three pieces of advice.

1. Develop proactive policies

Few organizations have procedures that outline who will take over an employee’s duties if that person can’t make it to work. Yet such coverage goes a long way with those of us who worry about missing deadlines and deliverables if we take a sick day.

At Smith, Spitzmuller’s faculty group has discussed this issue. For example: “Who can take over class instruction if one of us falls ill?” he says. “Proactively planning for this helps eliminate that hesitation—that negative emotion—around having to ask someone to fill in for you.”

Spitzmuller also believes companies should adjust their HR policies to allow for extra paid sick days. In Ontario, employees are entitled to only three paid sick days per year under the Employment Standards Act. That’s hardly enough to encourage workers to stay home when the sniffles arise.

“If an employee falls sick in February,” says Spitzmuller, “what are the odds they are going to take those paid sick days? Not high, because they know they might need them later in the year. So that creates an incentive for employees to come to work. It’s important to try to override that.”

2. Lead by example

Leaders tend to evoke the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But employees look to their leaders as models of office behaviour. If a manager shows up to work sick, it’s only natural for an employee to do the same.

Again, Spitzmuller can relate. One day earlier this fall he woke up feeling ill. It was a day that Spitzmuller was to deliver his first lecture of a new semester. “In the past, I definitely would have taken some over-the-counter drugs and gone into work.” Instead, he stayed home. “If I’m expecting my students to stay home when they are unwell, then I have to do the same.”

Post-pandemic, leaders have an opportunity to clearly signal to employees that it is acceptable to not show up at work—even in crucial moments—when they are sick.

3. Make a culture shift

Spitzmuller says that some organizations have a deeply ingrained culture that celebrates and rewards those who come in early, stay late and never take time off. It’s perceived as a sign of resilience and productivity. Yet when workers push through illness, productivity is cut by one-third or more and affects both the quantity and quality of the work.

“Over the last two decades, many organizations have talked about shifting to embrace work-life balance, but not all have been successful,” Spitzmuller says.

He believes that organizations should recognize employees for the work they do during regular business hours, acknowledge and understand the individual and corporate costs of presenteeism, and encourage employees to do right by themselves and their colleagues.

And it’s not just physical illness that organizations should be concerned about, Spitzmuller adds. Mental health and well-being should also be taken more seriously in the post-pandemic workplace.

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