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The dangers of working while sick

Sick woman at her desk. Image: Getty

Australia’s horror flu season isn’t deterring Australians from showing up while sick, but workers need to remember that sick leave is there for a reason, an expert has said.

A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by Heinz, found that two thirds of Australians expect to go into work while sick this winter, with more than half of the 1,000 respondents saying they would need to be “really” ill before taking a day.

Younger workers were more likely to feel this way, with only 54 per cent of Baby Boomers feeling they needed to be really ill to take a day off, compared to 61 per cent of Millennials and 56 per cent of Gen X workers.

Another study from The Netherlands published this week found that 81 per cent of women show up to work or school even while their period is making them feel sick. The problem is that the average woman feels 33 per cent less productive on bad period days.

“Women tend to force themselves to continue their tasks, so they often go to work, where one day of sick leave might actually be better in order to perform better in the following days,” researcher Theodoor Nieboer of Radboud University Medical Center said.

And as Australia’s flu season reaches nearly 300 deaths, there’s also a pressing public health argument to reconsider Australians’ preference for coming into work while sick.

If you’re sick - stay home

“If you're genuinely sick, even if you can struggle into work, you shouldn't be there,” the chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute, Peter Wilson told Yahoo Finance.

“It’s probably best if you don't be there because, while being sick, you might infect 10 others before you go home that night. If you're sick you should be recuperating in an appropriate way.”

It does get tricky, however, when workers feel the stack of work remaining after a sick day will be too big to handle.

This is where managing work-life balance comes in, Wilson said.

While digital connectivity can help workers tackle little problems, postpone meetings and delegate throughout the day, for other jobs where workloads are “extraordinarily high”, like in law, employees need to consider where the problem is coming from.

“People [who] are feeling under pressure, probably have a problem either with themselves, they've got a job that's too much, or they're not being well-supported by their employer,” he said.

And, he added, there are only a few jobs that are so special that nobody can help lighten the load on a sick day. If you fall into these categories, the problem isn’t with the sick day, it’s with the work flow and that needs to be addressed in the office.

There’s also something to be said for the odd day working from home to take the pressure off. This shouldn’t be mistaken for a sick day, but could work if both the employee and employer understand expectations, and recognise that while the employee is capable of carrying out their day’s work, having the extra sleep-in and time at home by avoiding the commute can be helpful.

It’s also on employers to prepare their staff for flu season. While we’re now in August, employers should have been offering to have their staff immunized in March and April.

“I think you can anticipate the way the normal sick leave draws down, which is influenza and colds and you can mitigate against that, and smart employers are doing it,” he said.

Some may pay to have people come in to administer the jab, while others offer vouchers for surgeries near the office.

“Whatever it is, if you’re asked for a flu shot, compared to losing someone for a week, it's a good business case.”

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