How to get out of the ‘presenteeism’ mindset at work

Feel like you can’t stay home from work when you’re sick? Tackling ‘presenteeism’ is more important than ever amid the coronavirus pandemic, experts say.  

How often in the past have you gone to work with a thumping headache, a runny nose and a cough or sore throat? If you spent the day sniffling and sneezing at your desk, you’re not alone.

Research from Australian National University and Geneva University has found many workers suffer “presenteeism” – going to work when they are unwell.

The research – carried out just before the coronavirus pandemic – found more than 95 per cent of people would work through “minor” symptoms like a sore throat, sneezing, runny nose or cough.

Almost 60 per cent said they would work if they had flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches and fever.

But ANU professor Peter Collignon, who is also an infectious diseases physician and microbiologist at the Canberra Hospital, says the presence of COVID-19 makes it even more important to tackle “presenteeism”.

“I think people go to work when they feel sick because they feel they’re letting down the team if they’re not there – they worry things won’t get done,” says Peter.

“People want to do the best for their colleagues and customers or patients – but probably do more harm than good.”

Why people work when they’re sick

Australian HR Institute chief executive Sarah McCann-Bartlett says employees can have a presenteeism mindset if they’re trying to show their manager how dedicated they are, particularly if they’ve just started a job or their employment is fragile.

“Others worry about how much work they will have to catch up on when they return, and some workplaces have an organisational culture of ‘toughing it out’ and not taking days off,” says Sarah.

People may also work when unwell if they don’t have access to paid sick leave.

Why presenteeism culture needs to change amid coronavirus outbreak

COVID-19 symptoms are similar to those of cold or flu, so staying home when unwell is now all the more important.

“It is part of our psyche to soldier on but if you go to work when you are coughing and sneezing you are more likely to spread infection,” says Peter.

“If you want to help your colleagues and customers, the best thing you can do when sick is stay home.”

How you can help change attitudes

Leaders, managers and business owners can set the right example by staying home when they are sick and changing presenteeism culture.

“Leaders and managers should also discourage staff from being in the workplace when they are unwell,” says Sarah.

More people have worked from home through the outbreak, so if you feel under the weather but don’t want to take personal leave, consider working remotely.

Call your boss and tell them you are sick and need to stay home so you can recover more quickly and avoid infecting others. Let your manager know early in the day, and say you will tell them the next morning if you’re still sick.

“Remember that nobody will doubt your commitment to your job because staying home when sick is best for you, your colleagues and the business,” says Sarah.

Written by Sarah Marinos.