Why Are My Employees Calling Out Sick?

Dvora Kluwgant, MD
Dvora Kluwgant, MD13 Apr 2022

Coming into the workplace when you are unwell or otherwise incapacitated is called presenteeism. While it may not seem like a serious issue at face value, presenteeism is the number one cause of loss of productivity in the workplace. In fact, the cost of presenteeism is estimated to be 150 billion dollars per year in the United States - a value far higher than the cost of absenteeism (where workers fail to show up to the workplace due to illness or other personal issues). 

Providing your employees with access to medical benefits can help keep them healthy and recover faster when they’re sick. It also sends the message that their health and wellbeing is important to your organization, which can help prevent presenteeism. With Mira, you can offer preventative, primary, urgent care and behavioral health benefits. Healthy employees mean less days off due to illness, and healthier employees in the office! Try Mira today!

Presenteeism Explained

Presenteeism occurs when an employee is physically present at work, but is unable to function to their full capabilities due to illness or injury. This includes:

  • Physical illness such as a cold, the flu, or other infections
  • Injuries
  • Mental illness such as depression or anxiety
  • Conditions that cause people to be emotionally unavailable such as burnout or high levels of work-related stress

In any of the above situations, workers may be showing up to work, but are likely not functioning as they would normally, or optimally, be able to. This causes a loss of productivity, and costs businesses in the United States billions of dollars every year.

The Cost of Presenteeism 

Of all the causes of loss of productivity in the workplace, presenteeism costs employers the most on a yearly basis. 

Financial Cost

The following graphic illustrates the most common causes of loss of productivity and their share of the financial burden on businesses:

Source: Harvard Business Review

Presenteeism is so costly because it impacts productivity in a number of ways:

  1. It decreases the individual worker’s productivity
  2. It can prolong whatever illness the employee is suffering from, because they are never able to rest and make a proper recovery
  3. When an employee comes into the workplace while sick, they are highly likely to infect other individuals, thus restarting the cycle and prolonging the effects of their illness on the workplace

Health Cost

In fact, one study showed that a sick worker could infect 40 to 60 percent of the surfaces in the office in just 2 to 4 hours. Not only is presenteeism a financial drain on businesses, it can also have serious occupational health and safety implications. A slight illness for one employee can mean a serious, potentially life-threatening one for an immunocompromised coworker. 

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Wellness Cost

Furthermore, and of equal concern, is the stress and burnout from not taking days off from work. There are many studies showing that even short breaks from work can increase productivity and reduce the risk of burnout. Burnout and high stress levels can also lower the function of the immune system, which may cause more illness and lead to an even higher level of presenteeism. 

Factors that Influence Presenteeism

A survey of 642 white-collar workers demonstrated that 70 percent reported having gone to work while sick. There are a variety of reasons people report for coming into the workplace while sick:

  • 38% said they came in to avoid falling behind on their work
  • 30% said they wanted to avoid losing out on paid time off
  • 10% said that their boss expected them to come in, even while sick

Another factor that influences how likely someone is to come to work while sick is their standing in the company’s hierarchy; 78 percent of employees who are at senior manager status or above say that they are likely to come into the office while feeling unwell. 

Additional Considerations 

The cost of presenteeism is particularly problematic because, unlike absenteeism, the issue is hard to notice. It’s easy to know when someone doesn’t come into the office, but it can be very hard to tell that someone is coming in and not working to their full potential due to an illness or mental health issue. Despite the difficulty with uncovering presenteeism, it is a rampant issue, with 9 out of 10 workers stating that they have observed some form of presenteeism in their workplace in the past 12 months.

Another issue with presenteeism is that the cost is more than just financial; presenteeism also lowers workplace morale. Despite the fact that many people will come in even when they are not well, 1 in 5 employees say they would give up a sick day to prevent a coworker from coming in sick, and 64 percent would rather attend a two-hour meeting than have their coworker be present while sick. An additional 76 percent of people say they’ve gotten sick at work, the majority of whom blame their coworkers for getting them sick. 

Interestingly, there is a significant difference between age groups regarding whether they feel it is appropriate to call in sick. Millennials are more likely than both Baby Boomers and GenX individuals to call in sick with mild or medium symptoms, while Baby Boomers are the most likely to take sick leave when they have severe symptoms. 

Combatting Presenteeism

There are a variety of things employers can do to discourage presenteeism. The following graphic presents the most commonly attempted techniques businesses use to fight presenteeism:

Source: CIPD

As demonstrated above, the most common method businesses use to combat presenteeism is sending workers who are obviously ill home. However, this might not be the best means of prevention, since many employees may not be noticably unwell. Some other techniques which might be able to stop presenteeism include:

  • Having paid sick leave policies in place. This will ensure that employees are not afraid they will have to sacrifice vacation days in order to take sick leave.
  • Instituting remote working policies. Allowing employees to work flexibly from home can make a big difference to the effect an employee being sick has on the office as a whole. When workers are allowed to stay home, they no longer have to risk infecting others, thus increasing morale and also allowing them to recover more quickly and fully.
  • Making policies and expectations clear from day one. There should be an expectation within the organization that when an employee feels sick, they stay home. This should be modeled by senior staff members as well.

By using the above strategies, employers can foster an environment in which employees feel comfortable taking off or working from home while they are ill, which is beneficial for both the employees’ health and the business’s bottom line.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Presenteeism is a difficult issue to notice and address in any workplace. Below are some commonly asked questions about workplace presenteeism to help you understand this issue. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected presenteeism? 

With stress being a common cause of presenteeism, it’s no surprise that presenteeism has worsened during the pandemic. Coupled with financial worries and poor job security, the causes of presenteeism are more common now than ever before. Research has shown over a third of employees said they worked while unwell during COVID-19 lockdowns. The good news is employee wellbeing is now at the forefront of many employer’s minds and agendas, so hopefully sweeping changes to workplace culture are on the way. 

What can I do as an employee to combat presenteeism? 

As an employee of a company, the most important thing you can do to avoid presenteeism is to stay home from work when you’re feeling unwell. If you are self-employed, work part-time, or are in a gig-based position, having access to medical benefits through a service like Mira can be very helpful in getting you back on your feet after an illness. 

Other things employees can do to avoid presenteeism are maintaining healthy habits including physical activity and meditation, both of which decrease stress and improve the function of the immune system.

What can I do to avoid presenteeism while working from home?

Since the start of the pandemic, working from home has become an acceptable option. Before the pandemic, telecommuting was stigmatized, and people who worked from home generally had slower salary growth than their in-office counterparts. 

With working from home at least part of the time being the norm, it can be hard to separate work time and personal time. Some tools that might help with avoiding burnout and presenteeism while working from home include having a dedicated workspace and leaving this workspace at the end of the day. Removing your work email from personal devices can be very beneficial as well. 

Bottom Line 

Presenteeism is widespread and can cost businesses a lot of money in revenue due to decreased productivity. While there are a variety of factors that cause employees to come into work when they are not well, workplace culture is one of the most important reasons presenteeism occurs.

To help your employees feel their health and well-being is important to your organization, consider using Mira as a way of offering healthcare benefits at a low cost. With Mira, you can choose among three plan options with varying copayments and monthly costs to you and those covered under the plan. Getting started is easy! Simply create a Mira employer account, choose among your plan options, and invite your employees by simply entering their phone number. Offering benefits just got easier and more affordable than ever!

Dvora Kluwgant, MD

Dvora is a recent medical graduate and current MPH student who is passionate about women’s health and health equity. She hopes to specialize in Obstetrics and Gynecology and is excited to join the Mira team in empowering people through healthcare. In her spare time she enjoys exercise, reading and spending time with her family and her dog, Dash.