Why staff should stay home when they get sick

12th July, 2017

Employees staying home sick costs the Australian economy $6–10 billion a year. People working while sick costs $34 billion a year. Guess which one is more demonised.

Presenteeism – or ‘soldiering on’ and turning up for work even if you’re sick – has a much bigger impact than people staying away from work.

Not only is the worker less productive if they’re at work while sick, but they risk spreading illness to their colleagues.

Back in 2011, Medibank teamed up with KPMG Econotech [PDF] to paint the effects of ‘soldiering on’.

It found that presenteeism was costing the Australian economy $34.1 billion while the cost of ‘absenteeism’ (code for chucking sickies) is far lower.

But the idea that somebody is chucking a sickie draws much more ire than a suggestion that somebody is working while sick. (For the record, you should do neither.)

So why aren’t people focused on the one which has a larger overall impact on businesses?

General Manager of People and Performance at MYOB, Alla Keogh, told The Pulse that the ‘soldier on’ mentality of Australian and NZ workers was multifaceted.

“Most people turn up to work when they’re sick simply because they think it’s the right thing to do, they think their employer expects them to, or because they don’t want to let down their team,” she said.

“They can also feel peer pressure to turn up when they shouldn’t be there.”

The key to changing an ingrained culture within a workplace, Keogh said, was leadership.

READ: How to create a positive workplace culture

Leading by example

Addressing any cultural issue starts with leadership, and the best way for business owners to change a behaviour is to change their own behaviour.
“If [a business leader is] sick, they should call in sick and stay home,” said Keogh.

“If they’re unwell but able to perform their duties remotely, then they should do that and not be ashamed to let others know that that’s what they’re doing.”

Leaders can also set policies which allow people to work from home if possible – looking at it through an OH&S lens.

“Having explicit policies around sick leave and the circumstances under which people should stay home is really important,” said Keogh.

“Under our OH&S act, employers have an obligation to provide a workplace that is safe and prevent illness and risks to health.”

It also comes down to managers having the ability to talk to workers openly and honestly about how they’re feeling.

“A good manager would be able to see when a team member is struggling or not performing at their best, or not feeling well – and perhaps they shouldn’t be there,” said Keogh.

She said asking what an employer can do to help an employee, and making clear that they don’t think any less of somebody for needing to go home was key to starting an honest conversation.

The role of technology is also helping to change the conversation.

Working from anywhere

An increasing number of professions are taking advantage of technology which allows users to work remotely.

“If the role allows, it should be an option for people to work from home as they need,” said Keogh.

“It should be normalised, and many organisations have created a culture where working from home is accepted because the technology to allow that now exists.”

READ: How to work from the pool

With the ability to work from home now available and the cost of presenteeism being spelled out, there’s now a compelling case that the ‘soldier on’ mentality is outdated.

While technology is helping change the conversation, changing a culture takes time – and that comes back to relationships.

“It goes to the relationship between employee and manager. Obviously there needs to be a big degree of trust between the employee and the manager to make that work” said Keogh.

Technology has created solutions. It’s up to managers to make sure that their employees are aware of how to work from home if and when it’s appropriate to do so.