burrito.jpegBy Kenneth Matos

Eighty students at Boston College fell ill reportedly due to a suspected outbreak of norovirus at a local Chipotle. The sick students included half of Boston College’s basketball team, causing some players to miss a game.

In response to the outbreak, a city inspector was sent to the Chipotle outlet and “… found three serious violations of sanitary rules: Chicken and beef were not kept hot enough; an employee had come to work ill on Thursday; and multiple patrons had reported being sick.”

Though it has not been confirmed that the sick employee was the source of this outbreak, other outbreaks of illness can be traced back to sick employees according to the Center for Disease Control. Incidents of so-called “presenteeism” – showing up to work despite injury or illness that should be treated at home — can be problematic for businesses and communities, especially for contagious illnesses like the flu or norovirus.

If the sick employee was the source of the infection, then this incident of presenteeism will have not only contributed to Chipotle’s existing stock problems related to incidents of food-borne illness, but could also be implicated in Boston College’s sports team loss. The issue of presenteeism isn’t just about an individual employee being ill and needing time off to recover, it is about protecting the health of other employees, customers and the business.

Unfortunately, presenteeism is astoundingly common. According to our recent data, 56% of U.S. employees reported that they have gone to work even though they were sick and should have stayed home more than two times in the past 12 months (Table 1).

Table 1: Percentage of U.S. Employees Reporting Incidents of Presenteeism in Past 12 months

graf 1

Source: National Study of the Changing Workforce

A study by the CDC found that the most common reasons food-service employees gave for working when sick were:

  • The restaurant did not offer paid sick leave or have a sick leave policy.
  • The restaurant was shorthanded, and no one else could take their shift.
  • They did not feel very sick or thought they would not pass their illness to anyone else.
  • They have a sense of duty or strong work ethic.

Our research supports the idea that a lack of paid leave is associated with more incidents of presenteeism among all employees (not just food-service employees). Presenteeism was common among employees with and without at least five paid days off for personal illness with 73% of both groups reporting at least one incident of presenteeism. However, reports of three or more such incidents were higher among employees without paid days off (33%) than those with paid days off (20%). See Table 2.

Table 2: Percentage of U.S. Employees Reporting Incidents of Presenteeism in Past 12 Months by Access to at Least Five Days of Paid Time Off for Personal Illness

graf 2

Source: National Study of the Changing Workforce

Though presenteeism is a problem for individuals who are ill and should be allowed time to recover at home, it is also a problem for businesses — for both those who serve food and those whose employees eat food (which I think includes everyone).

Business models which encourage employees to show up sick because they cannot afford to take time off are flawed business models. They risk not only the health of the employees, but also the health of the business itself. Reputations are so easily changed and reinforced by media.

For example, Chipotle is probably losing additional customers around the country from an incident in one outlet due to the national media coverage. For smaller employers without national presence, this problem is no less real. A few sick customers with strong social networks can have a bigger impact on your business than one sick employee taking a few days off.

And for those employers who don’t serve food, an ill employee could end up making others sick and ultimately impact productivity. In the larger picture, other employers without sick-time provisions could also end up hurting your organization’s productivity, as it may have done with Boston College’s basketball team.

While you don’t have control over what other employers do, there are steps you can take internally to keep presenteeism at bay.

The Society of Human Resource Management suggests a few tips to create organizational cultures and policies that work:

  • Encourage managers and employees to stay home when they might infect other employees.
  • Review disciplinary policies to balance absenteeism control and the potential for spreading illness.
  • Offer paid sick leave/paid leave banks.
  • Implement carry-over policies to manage the unpredictability of illness in good and bad years.
  • Provide wellness and flu shot programs.

In the end, it’s all about getting everyone to realize a sick day is a slam dunk for employees and employers.

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