The idea for this article came to me on my morning tube ride into Westminster. We are closing in on the end of Covid (or at least I hope we are!) and there was someone on my tube that was sniffing and snorting copious amounts of phlegm. Whist this could be caused merely by sinusitis and pose no risk at all to anyone else, it could also be some sort of bug!
We have seen a significant decrease in presentations for influenza since the introduction of measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus. This really gives us an idea that social distancing and good hygiene could reduce instances of flu in a post-covid world. Same with other infectious bugs such as norovirus, which has seen a reduction in outbreaks, and when they occur, they affect less people.
It makes perfect sense! A little respect for others when you’re not well, keeping your distance, and maintaining good personal hygiene, can reduce the prevalence of viruses that cause illness and death.
So, what does this have to do with work, presenteeism, and the economy?
Flu and The Economy
I shall mostly focus on the common problem – Flu. Influenza accounts for approximately 159 million lost working days in people aged 50-64 (internationally!) having a global economic cost of $39bn. In the UK alone the estimated human capital costs of influenza are £90m – £270m per annum.
The prevailing problem of presenteeism… Surely dragging yourself into work is, even when on death’s door, a great thing to do? Sick days are expensive! And some people don’t even get paid sick days.
If we can learn lessons from this whole coronavirus debacle, it is:
- Homeworking is possible
- Staff are generally more productive when working from home
- Social distancing reduces illness
All of these people that have, for years, been dragging themselves into work whilst full of flu and infecting everyone on public transport and in the office can now have an option! They can work from home. Or they can be off sick. No more necessity to take everyone else down with you when you’re sick and feeling too important to stay away from the office.
This could have a knock-on benefit for other forms of presenteeism – those who go to work due to long-term health conditions when they could equally be doing a better job working from home; and, people going in despite psychological challenges out of fear of repercussions. Presenteeism results in reduced productivity, and can have a damaging impact on corporate culture.
It would be amazing if, out of this pandemic, compassionate and realistic employers rose up and recognised the challenges their staff have been facing for decades. Might be a touch too optimistic though.
Yet, maybe if they are shown the cost benefits?
By actively promoting the option of working from home they allow staff to feel empowered. They also allow employees to feel like trusted and respected members of the team. As long as those homeworkers are actively involved within office communications, invited to team meetings virtually, and generally not forgotten! I suspect many have fallen into the forgotten camp during the coronavirus pandemic!
By actively allowing homeworking there will be less of a drive to come into the office with infectious diseases! This will likely reduce the prevalance of office-based outbreaks of illnesses such as flu and norovirus (although i honestly cannot imagine ANYONE going into work with norovirus!).
By recognising that homeworkers are often more productive due to less distractions, homeworking can be championed. I have heard of some antiquated employers/managers banning home working as they believe their employees will be lazy, sit around, and watch tv all day. The evidence-base refutes that. Although, maybe their employees would do that due to other cultural issues!
And, by treating employees with care and compassion, as humans who are allowed to be sick, and allowing them the time to recover, companies would likely avoid the need for presenteeism. They avoid unproductive staff. They mitigate the risk of unmotivated staff. And reduce the spread of illness which can significantly impact the economy, along with their own bottom line.
Companies that have punitive policies discouraging staff to be sick are likely damaging their own productivity levels, and thus their own profitability. By encouraging home working they might get less people bringing in infectious diseases into the office; increase productivity; have a happier workforce; and, increase profitability.
We have an opportunity to learn from this devastating year and a bit. It would be a travesty to ignore the important lessons and return to life as it used to be.