Human Resources

Australians know working sick is bad for them, but they do it anyway

Matthew Elmas /

We’re often told Australians love pulling sickies, but this winter, businesses are being warned to watch out for the opposite.

It only takes one person to show up to the office sick to turn an entire workplace into a germy hellscape, and new research shows the practice is worryingly common.

A YouGov poll of about 1,000 Aussies released this week has found a whopping two-thirds (66%) expect to go into work sick this winter.

More than half of respondents said they would have to be “really sick” to take a day off work, which is particularly concerning given Australia’s record-breaking flu season.

But, interestingly, the findings, commissioned by KraftHeinz, also reveal a double standard. While most workers said they will head in sick, four-in-five (83%) encourage those trying to “soldier on” to go home and get rest.

The findings indicate while Australian workers understand going into the office sick is a bad idea, they do it anyway.

It points to an unhealthy trend in Australian workplaces where employees are ignoring their health for work, despite being aware they’re liable to make themselves sicker.

A $34 billion problem

Workers showing up unwell, known as sick presenteeism, costs the Australian economy an estimated $34 billion every year and has been identified as one of the causes for the spread of flu virus.

But research shows workers themselves aren’t necessarily to blame for the problem, revealing large workloads, understaffing, job insecurity and fears of workplace harassment as the real causes.

Other research has identified a tendency for employers to focus on controlling absence, treating sick workers as a business issue rather than an employee wellbeing problem, which can drive unhealthy attitudes.

Peter Wilson, chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI), says sick presenteeism is often a cultural problem.

“It’s a cultural thing really. People come into work when they feel they need to be there. They might feel a restructuring is imminent and they need to be there,” he tells SmartCompany.

Meanwhile, doctors warn working while sick is the worst decision someone can make, likely to make an illness worse, not better.

Deadlines don’t go away in winter, and for those in teams where someone has already fallen ill, deciding to stay home and rest can leave other colleagues in a difficult position.

Meanwhile, workplace culture can make it difficult to discuss the issue, leaving workers feeling they could be left out of important discussions or opportunities if they’re off sick.

While doctors advise against that type of thinking, maintaining job security to put food on the table is a priority for millions of Australians.

Addressing sick presenteeism

So what can employers do?

Wilson says the best philosophy small businesses can adopt is to plan for the inevitably of workers falling ill by allowing for flexibility in deadlines and organising flu shots.

Beyond that, he says putting a premium on all-rounders who can cover for their colleagues is important.

“Small businesses don’t have time to develop silos, people need to know as much about other people’s jobs as their own,” he says.

American research has found increasing the number of paid sick days afforded to workers doesn’t necessarily increase absenteeism, but does help address workers showing up sick.

Other suggestions include creating a return to work policy to address information asymmetry around not just taking sick leave but how workers return to the office once they’ve recovered.

Human resources expert David Wurth says leaders need to set the right example, which means business owners feeling under the weather need to step back as well.

“You can’t be sick at work, that’s not setting an example,” he tells SmartCompany.

“You actually have to say things. A senior manager who has people reporting to them has to verbalise and raise the sick leave issue.”

Wurth does, however, note absenteeism — workers taking sick leave when they’re not unwell — is also a problem.

But, acknowledging both problems present challenges for workers and business owners alike, he says businesses not being proactive about tackling the issues aren’t doing themselves any favours.

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Matthew Elmas

Matthew is the news editor at SmartCompany. You can contact him at [email protected].

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