Managing Sick Leave and Presenteeism

February 23, 2012

Know Your Company’s Absentee Profile and the Most Promising Trends

A company appreciates its dedicated employees – those who arrive early, leave late, proactive with projects, exceed expectations – but when a worker continues to work in the office when fighting off illness, he or she inadvertently lowers the bottom line of a business.

Presenteeism – when an employee reports to work while sick – is estimated to account for up to 60 percent of total work illness expense1,2. The total cost of this phenomenon is steadily increasing for American employers and estimates range between $150 and $250 billion annually3.


Sick employees do not operate at their full potential and often cannot handle their regular workload as they struggle with their symptoms. Throughout the workday, they spread their bacterial or viral infections onto desks, office supplies, door handles and co-workers. In certain industries, ill workers may contaminate food or infect customers or clients.

The rise in presenteeism is attributed to a number of factors, including changes in household and financial situation, employer expectations and company sick or time off policies.

Within the past twenty years, the nation has experienced a rise in dual-earner households4, leaving no one at home to care for sick children or ailing older parents in the home. Often, individuals will report to work with contagious symptoms in order to save limited sick days to care for ill dependents.

Changes in the economy place additional pressure on employees to continue to head into work despite their ailments for fear of appearing less committed to their job or company, disciplinary action, placing burden on coworkers, falling behind or even losing their jobs.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 65 percent of public and private sector employees receive paid sick leave as part of their compensation package5.

On the other hand, adults without paid sick days are 1.5 times more likely than adults with paid sick days to report to work with a contagious illness6. Findings from the National Partnership for Women & Families, which supports paid sick days for all workers, show the national economy would show a net savings of $160 billion a year due to increased productivity and reduced turnover if all employees were offered seven paid days each year7.

The first step to managing and preventing presenteeism is committing to change the culture within the company. Establishing rules and guidelines for when to show up for work, or even offering an option to work from home, can maintain productivity and stop the spread of disease.

For example, educate employees about which symptoms they should keep at home.

  • A fever of any kind
  • Achy joints
  • Persistent cough with green mucus build-up and runny nose
  • Severe sore throat
  • Vomiting
  • Eye irritation or discharge

Less serious symptoms, however, such as allergies, headaches, arthritis or a cold, can still greatly affect worker productivity. Despite the temporary setback, employers should recognize the long-term benefits of encouraging an employee to remain at home until fully recovered. Practices to avoid include over-stressing attendance during employee reviews, verifying an employee is actually sick and disciplining employees for calling in sick on the day of. Offering free flu vaccinations or an on-site clinic for employees is also a cost-effective mechanism to tackle the issue.

Providing paid time off (PTO) can be a more effective way to manage presenteeism instead of offering employees vacation time or sick days. Establishing a bank of PTO for each employee allows flexibility to use time off to suit their needs. Regardless of the policy, fostering a culture of health and wellness in the workplace will boost morale and lead to a healthier environment overall.

Employees are your company’s most valuable asset. Research from the U.S. Center for Disease Control shows that every dollar invested in an individual’s health through a corporate wellness program returns between $3 and $68 in enhanced engagement, costs to the company and also reflects a significant drop in presenteeism. Taking a proactive approach to care for your employees keep dedicated workers happy, healthy and productive.

Written by Leeann Garms

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[1] http://www.medidirect.ca/imagedir/MediDirect%20Info%20Pkg%20203%20Presenteeism%20Article.pdf

[2] http://www.hreonline.com/pdfs/05022008Extra_MayoCostOfHealth.pdf

[3] http://www.l3ps.com/papers/Well-Med/Presenteeism-At-Work-But-Out-of-It-2004-10-HBR.pdf

[4] http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/herman/reports/futurework/conference/families/couples.htm

[5] http://www.bls.gov/news.release/ebs2.t06.htm

[6] http://paidsickdays.nationalpartnership.org/site/PageServer?pagename=psd_toolkit_quickfacts

[7] IBID

[8] http://www.uscorporatewellness.com/USCW%20-%20White%20Paper%20(ROI%20Analysis).pdf