Global Survey Finds Virtually Everyone Goes To Work While Sick

H1N1 Influenza Virus Particles. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Nearly all workers – including those employed in healthcare – will go into work while experiencing symptoms of illness, according to the results of a global survey, with over half saying they will go to work while experiencing symptoms of an influenza-like illness.

Researchers from the Australian National University investigated how many professionals across various sectors transmit influenza-like illnesses to their patients and colleagues by showing up to work while sick. The team focused on healthcare workers in particular, where showing up for work whilst sick may compromise patient safety, infect compromised and susceptible patients, and lead to medical errors (e.g. through mental exhaustion while sick).

For their study published in the journal PLOS One, they anonymously surveyed workers from 49 countries, with half of those participants working in healthcare. They found that almost all workers – 96.5 percent of non-healthcare workers and 99.2 percent of healthcare workers – went in to work while experiencing minor influenza symptoms, including a sore throat, fatigue, a cold, sneezing, runny nose, a mild cough, and reduced appetite. 

When symptoms were more severe, fewer respondents said they would continue to work, though 58.5 percent of healthcare workers still said they would continue to work despite experiencing influenza-like symptoms such as fever, cold chills, headaches, and muscle aches.

The survey was conducted between October 2018 and January 2019, but nevertheless has implications for how we deal with presenteeism (going to work despite illness or injury) during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

"It was bad enough before Covid-19 when it was just influenza and other respiratory viruses. But, now we have coronavirus it is more important than ever not go to work when you are unwell," co-author Professor Peter Collignon said in a statement.

"This study shows too many people go to work when they are sick, and this includes many people on the frontline of healthcare. More than half of the global population of physicians and nurses went to work when they had flu like symptoms."

The authors cite workplace culture, inadequate sick leave, understaffing, and job insecurity as possible reasons why healthcare workers feel like they are unable to take the time off they need to recover from illness and limit the risk of spreading it to others.

"A future strategy to successfully prevent the transmission of influenza-like illness in healthcare settings should address sick-leave policy management," the authors suggest in the study. "In addition to encouraging the uptake of influenza vaccine."

The survey, while small at only 533 respondents, is in line with other studies. A study published in the American Journal of Infection Control in 2017 found that over 40 percent of healthcare workers had worked while sick with an influenza-like illness during the 2014-2015 influenza season. The most common reasons for showing up when sick were they felt they were still able to perform the duties of their job and they didn't feel ill enough to miss work. For professionals working in long-term care facilities, the most common reason for coming into work while ill was being unable to afford the lost pay. 

[H/T: Science Alert]

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