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The up-and-down economic cycle has many employees still pedaling to work…sick

November 16th, 2009  |  Lucas Otto

>There are a few inescapable truths these days: 1. Unemployment continues to rise. 2. The flu (particularly H1N1) is on many peoples’ minds. 3. No one, neither employers nor employees, knows what to make of the economic situation. So it makes perfect sense that confusion would be present in the workplace when the question of whether to report to work when sick, or when possibly sick, gets brought up.

Conventional wisdom would suggest the answer to that question is not to come to work sick, but it is just not that simple. The problem is, reports show that unemployment has increased to its highest levels since 1983 (10.2%, according to the BLS), prompting widespread fear of job-loss among employees. While employers—needing staff to come to work—are also saddled with their own fears, as several reports show that the H1N1 virus, and seasonal flu, seems to be sweeping through businesses, schools, families, etc., at a rapid pace, and this could have a very damaging effect on the workplace.

So, when combining all this information, as an employer and employee, you are left in the middle of one big quagmire: With the economy down and people still losing their jobs at break-neck speeds, should employees come to work even when sick?

Certainly, the “stay home versus go to work sick” problem has plagued many offices nationwide as fears associated with the spread of H1N1 continue. In the Baby Boomer generation, and those preceding it, it wasn’t a question of whether you would come to work sick, but rather: Why would you stay home and not come to work sick? In an article in the Chicago Tribune, Tom Gimbel, chief executive of The LaSalle Network, a recruiting and staffing firm, felt that times have changed, saying:

“Since the recession started … it’s been a more heated issue of workers really having to protect their jobs and needing to make sure they’re in the office.” H1N1 means that “more than ever, employers are saying now, ‘If you’re sick, don’t come in, because it’s so contagious.’”

Yet, in times of rising unemployment, can employees really be expected to stay home as the onslaught of sickness begins to creep up on them? According to the 2007 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, “34 percent [of employers] foster a culture that discourages employees from coming to work sick.”

Today, that 34 percent is likely higher with fears of H1N1. That fear, coupled with the fact that the cost of presenteeism (when employees come to work in spite of illness) costs employers more annually than the cost of employee absenteeism (2007 SHRM study), seems to make it clear that staying home when sick is the obvious choice. However, in spite of this information, only 34 percent in 2007 said they discourage employees coming to work sick, making it somewhat clear that many employers do not make known their preference that sick employees, or potentially sick employees, stay home.

So, are employers really broadcasting to employees to stay home from work if sick? The simple truth is, with many businesses hurting in today’s economy, the words “stay at home if sick” have probably been uttered less by employers than: our economic problems continue in this bad economy; the company has experienced a continued string of bad financial quarters; layoffs are possible; no bonuses or merit increases this year; and all holiday parties are cancelled.

When things are bad enough that a holiday party has to be cancelled, what employee wants to take that sick day? So, the solution may be communication by both parties, but it starts with the employer, who must recognize the potential threats to workplace productivity and its bottom line from having employees show up to work with flu-like symptoms, and must communicate its policy that sick employees to stay home. In addition, the employer, if need be, should also take a look at its policy of offering paid sick days to employees (see proposed Healthy Families Act bill). Conversely, it then becomes the employee’s responsibility to make use of this policy when sick and stay home, rather then bringing their illness to the workplace.

The problem remains, however, that even with all the knowledge we have about H1N1 and seasonal flu—and the information showing that the cost of coming to work sick is high—the sneezing, coughing, runny-nosed employee is still coming to work, and his or her workmates are still wondering why. The answer seems fairly clear: If you subtract the employees from the equation that do not even get paid sick days off, then you are left with the fear of job-loss for those that have sick days to use, and in today’s economy and its ever-rising unemployment rate, there is simply no pill that can alleviate that fear.