Why Do Sick People Go To Work? Unhealthy Fear

A lot of people come to work sick, according to a new poll conducted by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

You know the scene: The guy in the next cubicle is sneezing and coughing. And you're afraid to breathe.

In a survey of people in Florida and Ohio — two swing states in the upcoming presidential election — NPR asked people about their work habits.

"What we found," says Robert Blendon, of the Harvard School of Public Health, "is about half the people reported that in at least a number of cases they go to work when they're sick and believe they should stay at home because of the financial issues that are involved."

Employers are offering sick leave. Among those polled in Florida, about 67 percent of people with jobs said they had sick leave. For Ohio, it was 60 percent.

Employees Under Pressure

Blendon says the poll suggests there are two main reasons people go to work sick: There is no paid sick leave, or they feel pressure from their employer to be on the job, regardless of whether they are ill.

There is no information proving this trend of going to work sick is increasing. This appears to be the first time pollsters have asked this question.

But other parts of the poll by NPR, Kaiser and Harvard suggest more workers are going to work sick. Many people said their financial situation has gotten worse over the last year. More than a third said they've had problems getting a good-paying job or a raise because of the economy.

Going to work sick isn't a good idea, Blendon says.

"The fact that so many people feel they can't stay at home for economic reasons is not the best way to go in terms of the best health of families," he says. "You want them to feel that if they're sick, the best option is to stay home without serious financial penalties."

Easing The Burden On Workers

That's why San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have recently required many employers to offer sick leave. And federal legislation has been proposed.

But that's not the cure, says Marc Burgat. He's the vice president of government relations for the California Chamber of Commerce, and he fought against the San Francisco law. He says in this economy, businesses can't afford it.

"If we start mandating these benefits, some of those entry-level positions will either find reduced benefits, reduced pay or simply find the jobs eliminated," Burgat says.

The best way to deal with sick leave? Leave it up to the marketplace, Burgat says. Employers compete among one another for good workers.

"When an employee comes in to look for a job — whether it's an entry-level job or a higher job — they're not looking at just the salary, but the entire benefits package," he says. "Sick leave and medical insurance and those sorts of things are part of that total package, and that's what allows one business to attract employees over another business."

Whether that will work in a struggling economy remains to be seen. Still, Burgat says, he doesn't want his workers to come in sick. When they're ill, he tells them to stay home.

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