Presenteeism - what is it?

What is 'presenteeism'?

'Presenteeism' is the term given when sick workers come to work, work at levels that are less than optimal, and risk infecting others. 

It is always assumed that absenteeism is a big problem for workplaces - but in fact, presenteeism can be a bigger problem. In 2014 it was calculated that absenteeism accounts for approximately $6 billion in lost productivity in Australia each year. The cost of presenteeism, on the other hand, was estimated to cost business about $25 billion each year.

There is a tendency to 'soldier on' and struggle in to work no matter how sick someone is: advertisers have picked this up and promote medications which, while helping with symptoms, do nothing to address the causes of illness. Workers who go in to work 'doped up' on cold and flu tablets are still infectious.

The best way to increase protection against influenza (the 'flu'), for example, is to be vaccinated. This is an issue HSRs should consider raising with their employers - particularly those who represent workers whose work means they come into contact with the general public or students and are at a higher risk of catching the flu.  The government-funded flu vaccine was to be available from 20 April, a month later than most years, as the vaccine has been reformulated to cover a new strain of flu.

Last year there was a new flu vaccine, known as "quadrivalent" which had four flu viruses compared with three in the normal trivalent vaccine. And this happens from time to time - the standard vaccines need to be adapted, and when available are often more expensive, and not available via the government's free flu vaccine program.

A recent flu season in the United States (see the CDC report: Flu Season 2014-2015) and most of Europe was dominated by the A(H3N2) strain of flu – and most of the serious influenza was caused by this strain which had changed over the five to six months when the vaccine producers were manufacturing the vaccine. The new Australian vaccine has been updated to protect against the new A(H3N2) viruses.

When this occurs, it means that even if someone got a flu shot the year before, they need to get one again.  This is also because, apart from the new strains of viruses, immunity from the vaccine only lasts a short time and it is important to have a high number of antibodies circulating in our bodies to protect us from the flu.

Flu vaccinations can be organised through various (local) medical services.

What is the Employer's Responsibility?

The employer has duties under the OHS Act.

Under Section 21 of the OHS Act, the employer has a duty to provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health.  Also, under Section 22, the employer has a duty to monitor the health of employees.

Taken together, an employer who is complying with the duties under the Act should be well aware if employees are suffering from infectious conditions, and have in place policies which minimise the risk of other workers getting infected. This is something that health and safety reps should take up with management, as well as the provision of flu shots.

Last updated September 2016

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