Marketplace: Coming to Work Sick Hurts Productivity

A new survey says that 56 percent of employers now say that "presenteeism" — when sick employees show up for work — is a problem. The surveyor says sick people reporting for work may lower productivity and make other workers and customers sick. Host Madeleine Brand talks to Marketplace's Bob Moon about the findings.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. You're feeling lousy, and you think you're coming down with something, but loyal worker that you are, you drag yourself to work anyway. Mike, does that sound familiar?

(Soundbite of nose-blowing)

MIKE PESCA, host:

What? What was that?

BRAND: Right. Well, you may want to know that there is a new survey out that says workers showing up sick are doing, Mike, more harm than good. I need a Hazmat suit here. Human resources departments are considering this a growing problem. Joining us with more is MARKETPLACE's senior business correspondent, Bob Moon. Bob, is this really a big problem, or at least a big problem outside of DAY TO DAY here?

(Soundbite of man coughing)

BRAND: You too, huh?

BOB MOON: Yeah. Well, it's one thing to frown on workers who are absent all the time, but it's really quite another to have your employees showing up sick and taking the whole workforce down with them. There's a computer software provider for human resources departments called CCH, and they conducted what they're calling their 2006 Unscheduled Absence Survey.

They put questions to more than 300 human resource executives around the country, and 56 percent of those employers now report that having sick employees showing up for work is a problem for them. Only 39 percent thought that was a problem in a survey a couple of years ago.

This is something that's known as presenteeism, by the way. You're present, but how much work are you going to get done? CCH says when you're sick, you're not going to be as productive, so the employer is essentially paying you to do less work. And as I mentioned, the even bigger problem happens when the worker passes that illness around, not only to workers but to customers.

And by the way, this survey found a growing number of employers are taking action to send sick employees home and to educate workers on the importance of staying home when they're sick.

BRAND: Well, what about the reverse? What about employees who skip work who aren't really sick?

MOON: Yeah, that's the other side of the coin here. Not only is presenteeism on the rise, but also absenteeism is. The CCH survey found that unscheduled absenteeism at the workplace has climbed to its highest point is almost seven years.

BRAND: And isn't there - don't employers expect more of that because a lot of people are now wanting to maintain this balance between work and the rest of your life?

MOON: Yeah, interestingly enough, there's a book out on this subject right now. It's called "The Sick Day Handbook." It's written by Ellie Bishop, and she argues that employers are more understanding of the occasional need for a mental health day, if you will. This author actually has a list of suggested excuses. She says something like irritable bowel syndrome works well because nobody wants to hear about the symptoms.

And today in the MARKETPLACE newsroom, we're taking a look at the deadly impact of AIDS in South Africa.

BRAND: Thank you Bob, Bob Moon of public radio's daily business show MARKETPLACE, produced by American Public Media.

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