A few months back, it seemed as if the coronavirus pandemic would kill off presenteeism -- you know, showing up at work with a sniffle or cough to prove your value or ensure you get your paycheck. Companies that didn't offer paid sick leave were sure to wise up, realizing it was madness to create incentives for workers to spread germs on the job, and Type A workaholics would see that putting the entire office at risk of infection is more selfish than selfless. As it turns out, presenteeism just got a new address: the kitchen table. "You're expected to be always accessible, because where else could you be?" says Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow. "There's nowhere to go, nowhere to hide."
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, remote work had started to chip away at sick days. Slack messages saying "I've got a cold brewing, so I'll work from home today" were already replacing "Hey, boss [cough, cough], I need a sick day" phone calls. A 2014 Stanford University study found that call center employees who worked from home put in more days, because they stayed on the job at times they would have been too ill to come to the office. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year found that people with flu symptoms were more likely to work if they had the option to do so from home. "When everything happens in the same place, you no longer have that geographic boundary" between work and home, says Barbara Larson, a business professor at Northeastern University.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says 1 in 4 companies adopted more generous sick leave policies last spring as the coronavirus spread. But instead of taking advantage of those rules, many ailing employees simply continued to toil away at a zombie pace from the couch: A survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of a cold remedy, ColdCalm, found that half of the 2,000 respondents had quietly taken partial sick days during the pandemic -- without telling their boss -- and 7 in 10 said they'd worked while feeling under the weather.
Remote work means people are less exposed to the germs that cause colds. That, plus social distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing, has sent flu infections plummeting this winter. And some of the current hesitation to ask for time off may be because the seriousness of Covid-19 has shifted the definition of what it means to be sick. With images of people dying on ventilators making sore throats seem trivial, many workers fear bosses would disapprove of a sick day for anything less than Covid. "If you actually call in sick, of course everybody's first question is, 'Is it Covid?' " Larson says. "People are reluctant to self-identify as sick right now."
But it's not only contagious illnesses that might require a sick day: Including ailments such as back pain, allergies, or depression, "95% of us suffer from something," says Ron Goetzel, director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He estimates that lower productivity from workers who show up when sick costs employers twice as much as treating those conditions would. Migraines alone led to losses of $45 billion a year in the U.S. and Europe, according to the Harvard Business Review, and almost 90% of that stems from presenteeism.
Researchers who study cognition have found that being sick impairs brain function as much as drinking alcohol or pulling an all-nighter. These risks are probably even greater for the knowledge workers who find it easiest to work remotely, because their jobs are all about brainpower. Nonetheless, employees shouldn't be forced to take days off if they feel they can be productive for at least part of the day, says David Burkus, author of Leading From Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams.
For salaried workers paid to achieve goals, not put in a certain number of hours, working more flexibly is reasonable -- as long as they inform colleagues of their availability. "Remote work pushes a lot of things down to the level of team culture, as opposed to organizational culture," says Burkus, a former management professor who conducts training courses for managers of remote teams (remotely, of course). It can be tough for workplaces to reach that level of trust, putting the onus on managers to lead by example, broadcasting when they'll be offline and why -- be it for a child-care emergency, the flu, or just a needed break. "We've known for a long time that time away from work makes work better," Burkus says. "I'm fully supportive of mental health days."
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