Sick? Stay home; your clients will thank you

Working while you are ill can be bad for your business’s good health

Toni Simler, owner of U & Me Dance Inc., said staffers at her business who ‘tough it out’ and come to work with a cold or the flu only make it worse for the rest of the staff. Sick employees can also spread their colds to clients, an easy-to-accomplish feat in the face-to-face world of dance instruction.

Dan Hiestand
   Employees at Toni Simler’s business do a lot of up-close-and-personal things.
   Whether it’s tangoing across the floor or twirling a partner during a swing dance, instructors who work at her Bellingham dance studio — U & Me Dance Inc. — literally go cheek-to-cheek with clients.
   This physical proximity means that issues such as hygiene and personal appearance take on important meanings.
   “When they walk in the door, we encourage people to sanitize their hands before they go anywhere or do anything,” said Simler, a co-owner of the business. “Dancing is intimate.”
   When dance instructors are ill, contagious sickness can spread easily, Simler said.
   “(Instructors) really can’t come to work when they are sick, because I have an obligation to my customers and the public,” she said.

Coming to work ill can cost
   While most employers are familiar with employee absenteeism — when employees do not come to work — many are not as acquainted with its polar opposite: ‘presenteeism.’ The term refers to the problems faced when employees come to work in spite of illness or other detrimental conditions, which can have negative repercussions on business performance and the bottom line.
   A 2004 study by the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Cornell University found that up to 60 percent of the total cost of employee illnesses came from presenteeism.
   To create the study, researchers used an insurance database on medical conditions and absences of about 375,000 employees during a three-year period. They combined these with published studies on productivity among workers with certain illnesses.
   Based on data, researchers estimated that 49 percent to 89 percent of the total costs caused by headaches were due to reduced on-the-job productivity, rather than absent employees or health care costs. Workers showing up to work with allergies were responsible for an estimated 55 percent to 82 percent of allergy costs to businesses. Estimates of on-the-job arthritis costs ranged from 35 percent to 77 percent.
   When researchers added the on-the-job costs of less-productive workers to the other costs of illnesses, conditions such as hypertension, heart disease and mental illness were the biggest burdens, costing from $392 to $348 per employee. Costs are on the mind of Deana Reynolds, a manager at Bergen & Company Embroidery Works in Bellingham. She said employees who come to work when they shouldn’t end up doing more damage than good.
   “What the employees do is so detailed, and they have to be on top of their game at all times, and if they’re not, mistakes are made, product is ruined, and it ends up costing the company,” she said.
   As a policy, the company sends sick employees home, she said.
   “In the past, we have had people come in with colds, for example, and before we know it, everybody is out with the cold,” she said. “So we can’t afford that.”
   Reynolds said it can be tough to balance an employee’s absenteeism with the fact that work needs to get done and deadlines need to be met. If employees miss too much work, co-workers pay the price with increased workloads, and tough decisions have to be made, Reynolds said.
   “It is (difficult),” she said. “When I have had to let people go, it is so devastating. But I have to come around to the point where I look at them and say, ‘A person that does your job needs to do these things. They need to be here. They need to be on time, and they need to produce.’”
   Simler, who worked at a technology company in Seattle for 30 years before moving to Bellingham five years ago, said the impact of presenteeism is easy to overlook. In fact, employees at her former company were encouraged — and essentially threatened — not to be ill, she said.
   “We had a policy at (the technology company) that if you were out three occurrences in five days, or anywhere close to that, then you had a first step that you had to sit down and talk with supervisors and go through (a line of questioning),” she said.
   This would include company management inquiring into what employees were doing to get better.
   “If they were sick again, then you had to take a next step and warn them that if they were sick again, they would be in jeopardy of losing their job,” she said. “It was very strict, very rigid. And I did have a couple people that I actually had to lay off. I hated it. I hated doing it because I understood the reasons (they were sick).”
   Employees at her former employer were not officially allotted any sick days, which meant absent employees were on the company dime.
   “I always wished that they just had a policy that allowed for (a certain amount) of sick days, and when those were gone and you were sick, you didn’t get paid,” she said. “And that would have been punishment in itself and not necessarily punishment of losing your job.”
   She admits she still has problems choosing the pillow over the punch clock.
   “Thirty years of being in a business where it was not okay to be sick, I think that kind of forced that issue,” she said. “I felt like I had to keep working, and people were watching me and I had to keep working.”
   Like many small businesses, Simler said, the dance studio doesn’t pay for employee health care.
   “Our teachers don’t get paid if they don’t work here,” she said. “So it behooves them to come teach. But they are also very conscious of the fact that if they are sick, they are going to pass it to a great many people. We really don’t have any issues with any of our employees at this point coming to work because they are sick or being sick too much. I think we are really fortunate in that.”

The bottom line
   Sometimes, the reasons for staying home are more than just the common cold.
   “In the dance business, it’s easy to get burned out,” Simler said. “When you’re working with a person, one-on-one or in a class — especially in a class — you put out a lot of energy.”
   It’s important for employers to keep an eye on employee issues.
   “You just have to recognize that and step back from it a little bit,” she said. “We just have to watch for it. I have seen male teachers (in other dance schools) get burned out to the point where they almost go into a depression where they don’t want to be around anybody.”
   Torrey Speer, owner of Emerald City Smoothie in Bellingham, said building trust between the employer and the employee is an important part of preventing both absenteeism and presenteeism.
   “I put a lot of trust in my employees to make the call, but at the same time understanding that we are serving a food product here, and that that comes first,” he said. “I don’t want to jeopardize other people by them coming in sick.”
   If employees do not seem fit to work, employers should not be afraid to give mandatory time off, said Simler — and businesses should never have policies that force people to work if they are genuinely ill.
   “If you have a plan that forces people to come to work when they are sick because they are going to be penalized when they are not coming to work, then you are going to have people coming to work when they are sick. It just stands to reason,” she said. “On the other side of the coin, you need people there, and you need to not make it so easy for them (to be sick).”
   Mostly, employers should urge employees to use common sense, she said.
   “I think making it very clear to your employees that you need them here when they are not feeling good — even if they are not feeling very good but they’re not contagious — it’s a fine line,” she said. “If they do come in and you see that they are sick, send them home.”


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