MRO Magazine

Sick workers on the job pose problems for companies, survey shows

Riverwoods, IL -- As another flu season gets under way, employers are increasingly concerned about the threat sick ...

Human Resources

February 5, 2007
By MRO Magazine

Riverwoods, IL — As another flu season gets under way, employers are increasingly concerned about the threat sick employees pose in the workplace. According to the findings of the 2006 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, 56% of employers now report that “presenteeism,” when sick employees show up for work, is a problem in their organization, up from 39% just two years ago.

As those who catch the flu also pass it along, CCH highlights the important steps employers can take to avoid presenteeism and keep a healthier workplace during flu season and throughout the year. CCH is a provider of human resources and employment law information and services and a part of Wolters Kluwer Law & Business ( of New York, NY.

“Presenteeism is a concern for employers not only because it lowers an employee’s productivity, but because that employee can pass along contagions to other workers and customers,” said CCH Employment Law Analyst Brett Gorovsky, JD. “Employers need to understand why employees are coming to work sick and what they can do to help address this — whether it’s adapting policies, educating employees and managers or taking some other steps to make it clear that while they need employees at work, they also want a healthy workforce and workplace.”

However, work absenses from employees who are not actually sick are also a problem for employers. The CCH survey also reports that 24% of employees who call in sick for personal reasons actually are taking time off for family reasons, while 18% are taking time off for personal needs and 12% are taking time off because they feel too stressed to work.



Regarding the presenteeism problem, there are many reasons why employees don’t stay home to recuperate, including being overworked, considering themselves too devoted to the company, saving time off for future use or being strongly discouraged by their company from taking sick time.

Having too much work/fear of missing deadlines was the most common reason sick employees come in to work, mentioned by 66% of respondents to the CCH survey. The lack of anyone to cover a sick employee’s workload was cited by 56% of respondents, and company loyalty was a factor in 36% of presenteeism situations.

But not wanting to use vacation time and trying to save sick time for later in the year also were common reasons sick employees are at work, cited 50% and 41% of respondents, respectively.

Of particular concern are the numbers of employees who are showing up for work ill because either they want to avoid disciplinary action or their company discourages taking sick time. Forty-six per cent of survey respondents cited fear of discipline as a reason why employees come to work sick, while 25% report their company culture discourages using sick days.

“If an employer takes disciplinary action regardless of the circumstances when an employee exceeds a sick-day limit, then an employee who has been out with the flu for several days may choose to come into work sick rather than risk disciplinary action,” Gorovsky explained.

“Given that the height of flu season is at the beginning of the year in most parts of the country, employees are particularly concerned about using all of their sick time early in the year. Employers need to be particularly careful that their policies are not encouraging the wrong behavior, which can be counterproductive to a healthy workforce and have costly consequences.”

The 2006 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey found, however, that disciplinary action is still the number one absence control program, used by 97% of employers to help control high rates of employee absences.


At the same time, employers are taking steps to help overcome the rise in presenteeism, according to the CCH survey. A majority of companies (62%) with presenteeism problems report that they try to combat the issue by sending sick employees home; 46% educate employees on the importance of staying home when they are sick; 36% foster a culture that discourages workers from coming in sick; 22% permit employees to telecommute when they are sick; and 9% report they give employees an unlimited number of sick days.

More employers are also allowing employees to carry over unused sick time from one year to the next, with 44% of employers now allowing this, compared to 38% in 2005. Also on the rise are Paid Leave Bank programs, also known as Paid Time Off (PTO), which combines all time off into a single bank of days to be taken in the way that best meets an employee’s needs. According to the CCH survey, 70% of employers now offer PTO programs.

“With a PTO program, employees have more control over how to use time off, helping to eliminate the fear of depleting sick days early in the year,” Gorovsky noted. “But it’s apparent that companies need to take multiple steps to combat presenteeism if they’re going to address all the different reasons workers show up for work sick.”


Among the steps CCH notes employers can take to help ensure a healthier workplace and minimize disruptions during flu season:

– Offer a flu-vaccination program: 64% of organizations CCH surveyed now sponsor flu-shot programs for employees, up from 61% in 2005.

– Tap your employee assistance program and healthcare support services: Determine if they offer a hotline or web site your employees can use to access FAQs and get guidance and information about healthcare issues.

– Establish and communicate guidelines: Help employees understand under what conditions they should stay home, and when it’s safe to return to work. For example, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates individuals who get the flu may be able to infect others from the day before their symptoms develop, to five days after becoming sick.

– Provide tips on how to avoid spreading germs — a good source is the CDC: Use posters or offer the information on your corporate intranet.

– Ensure absence control polices are not counterproductive: Programs such as disciplinary action need to be assessed to ensure they don’t unnecessarily pressure sick employees to report for work.

– Foster a healthy environment: Ensure managers are fostering an environment in which ill employees feel comfortable asking to leave the workplace or, better yet, not report to work in the first place.

– Set a good example: Managers should be urged not to come in sick as employees may then see the message to “stay at home” as lip service.

– Work with employees and your facilities group to keep common areas clean: Make sure these areas are cleaned regularly; this may even include cleaning conference rooms between meetings.

– Recognize helpful employees: Consider bonuses, rewards or other recognition for employees who step in to help do extra work for ill colleagues.

The 2006 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, which surveyed 326 human resource executives in U.S. organizations, found that the rate of unscheduled absences has increased to its highest level since 1999 and can costs employers as much as $850,000 annually in direct payroll costs. The survey was conducted for CCH by Harris Interactive.