You’ve woken up with a pounding head, a sore throat and aching limbs – all telltale signs of a bug. If you worked in an office, you would probably call your boss and tell them you can’t come in. Not only do you feel awful, but you don’t want to spread the flu to your co-workers too.
The problem is that you don’t work in an office, you work from home. And so instead of staying in bed like you should, you put the kettle on and drag yourself to your desk and get started with the working day.
Lots of us have a problem with taking sick days. In fact, the number of sick days taken per worker per year has almost halved since 1993. Back then, the average worker took 7.2 days of sick leave a year, whereas in 2017 that figure had fallen to 4.1 days.
And those who work at home are even less likely to take days off because of illness. According to a survey of 1,096 British workers, home workers take an average of 2.4 sick days per year, in comparison with the 2.6 taken by those working from company premises. It doesn’t tell us they are healthier, though – or whether they are just more prepared to carry out their work duties when they should be recuperating.
Presenteeism – workers being on the job but not fully functioning because of illness – is a growing problem in the UK. According to a survey by CIPD and Simply Health, 86% of more than 1,000 respondents said they had observed presenteeism in their organisation in 2018, compared with 72% in 2016 and just 26% in 2010. But why are we refusing to take time off when we are sick?
We live in a society which values productivity above all else and where jobs are harder to come by than they were in the past, which means fears over job insecurity and looking lazy are contributing factors. And people who are self-employed may find it even harder to take time off if they don’t have paid sick leave.
It can be particularly difficult to call in sick if you work from home. You may feel guilty about taking time off if you’re already able to work remotely. And if you don’t have to travel anywhere, your boss may expect you to log on as normal and power through. But research shows this can have disastrous consequences for both you and your employer.
First, presenteeism has been linked to an increase in reported mental health conditions, including stress, anxiety and depression. Yet it is these conditions that are among the main causes of long-term sickness absence. Workers who rarely take time off to recover from an illness also risk developing burnout, a state of chronic stress that affects both physical and mental wellbeing.
When you aren’t well, your body needs time to recover. You need to rest, drink plenty of water and avoid stress, which can suppress your immune system further. When you “soldier on” through a cold, it can linger for far longer than if you had taken a few days off – affecting your health and ability to work for weeks. You may also end up feeling worse in the long-run, forcing you to take more time off in the future.
And when you don’t feel well, it is also difficult to focus on the task at hand. Even simple tasks can be a challenge when you are battling a throbbing headache and painful sinuses, not to mention the side effects of medications. Your cognitive thinking or motor skills may be impaired, making work impossible despite your best intentions.
Being “out of it” can lead us to make mistakes, spend more time on tasks and struggle to make decisions, which can be costly for employers. Research from Nottingham Business School (NBS) in 2017 found that the average UK employee spends almost two weeks a year working while ill – costing firms more than £4,000 ($5,058) per person due to low productivity.
The most obvious solution is a change to our working culture. Instead of forcing people to work when they are sick and encouraging workers to “power” through lunch breaks, employee health and wellbeing has to be a priority.