Sickness presenteeism


Why is it still prevalent amid the pandemic?

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian had carried on working for up to two hours last week while awaiting the results of a rapid COVID test. Sadly, she was not the first Australian to “soldier on” in the face of health concerns and a big day at work. Most certainly, she won’t be the last.

“Sickness presenteeism” or soldiering on is prevalent even in 2020 despite the work from home arrangements. Numerous people from state premiers to minimum-wage workers feel the need to show up because they don’t have a choice, feeling like their whole job depends on it.

It is cited that managers and leaders are shown to model good behaviour and foster a healthy workplace culture in which soldiering on isn’t celebrated as heroic.

A Pathology Awareness Australia report last 2016 had estimated the economic costs of workers turning up sick or putting in unnecessary extra hours at more than $34 billion a year. This is due to productivity loss and the spread of infection to co-workers.

A 2019 statistics revealed 6,387 women going to work while sick due to workload pressures and the thought that they are not sick enough to stay at home.

The prevalence of COVID-19 has become a significant public health dilemma as well, as cases have been traced to workers spreading the virus at work, including abattoirs and health-care facilities.

Soldiering on is found throughout the employment spectrum, but is mostly among “essential” workers, health care workers and the like, who felt “socially obligated” to attend work.

There is a need for businesses and organizations to ensure a safe working environment, which means establishing clear expectations and protocols regarding staying home when unwell. Businesses should also include the opportunity for remote working when workers feel well enough to work but may still be infectious.

Hence, organizations should offer medical and well-being support and care to employees to provide confidence to their essential workers. More broadly, managers and organizations should also understand that tacitly encouraging people to come to work even unwell could impair the organizational performance.

That being said, managers are encouraged to prepare contingency plans for absences to be able to maintain the momentum of the organization.