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March 30, 2011
The Price of Presenteeism
Most of us have faced the dilemma that morning when we wake up with an annoying scratchy throat and fevered brow: Ugh! Do I go to work or not? This common problem is made worse by the current climate of less people doing more work. You may legitimately be doing the jobs of three people, and staying home will have more of an impact than before your team was cut in half.
The pressure is on.
There are deadlines looming. An important meeting that can’t be missed. An overriding fear of not being there to field that VIP client call. We KNOW that we aren’t operating at 100 percent. Or 50 percent, for that matter. But “being there” seems to trump how cruddy we actually feel.
As a result, most of us drag ourselves in…out of a sense of duty or fear.
But what is the real cost of sharing our hive of germs with our workmates?
From an HR standpoint, workplace illness can be extremely costly. Realistically, everyone has varying levels of immune resistance. Even in a moderately sized office, you could potentially pass your cold on to several coworkers. We all know this can have a domino effect and, in turn, could result in even more missed days from work…impacting productivity on a greater scale.
According to a study by the Society for Human Resources Management, presenteeism (the term for attending work while ill) costs companies $180 billion annually. When we are not operating in a normal capacity, the potential for errors and / or omissions goes up exponentially. If our brains are fogged by cold medicine or lack of sleep, we could make critical mistakes that either impact our work or those of others.
For that reason, some employers are starting to be more assertive in enforcing their sick policies, with a keen eye to the bottom line.
So do you or don’t you show up to work with the sniffles and a box of tissues tucked under your arm?
You need to weigh the real costs versus your expectations carefully.  Can work go on without you? Probably. Is there an important meeting that you simply cannot miss? Potentially, but what other options do you have at your disposal?
Many employers and employees are finding that telecommuting has become a reasonable alternative—you can check email or call in to a meeting / teleconference, and your germs stay with you at home.
If your office doesn’t have a policy about telecommuting when you are sick, maybe this is a good time to propose one before you are under the weather. Most people who do stay home usually are checking their email and voicemail anyway, so making it official can make the situation a win-win for everyone—you still get to stay home, they still get your (albeit diminished) productivity.
Taking a day or two to recover can help you get well faster, reduce risk to your fellow colleagues, reduce errors made when you aren’t operating at 100 percent, and cause employers to appreciate the fact that you aren’t contributing to lower productivity levels through presenteeism. Ask yourself how effective you will be if you go to work feeling ill, versus how in the weeds you will be if a bug you brought to the office brings down your entire team. 

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Dawn Rasmussen, CMP, is the president of Portland, Ore.-based Pathfinder Writing and Careers, which specializes in mid- to upper-management résumés. She is an active volunteer in her community and donates her time teaching a résumé writing class at the Oregon Employment Department every week to help empower unemployed professionals and workers.
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