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Absenteeism and ‘presenteeism’: Which is the greater threat to productivity?

Prevention precautions advised as seasonal illnesses take their toll on SA’s workforce

With South Africa in the grip of the influenza season, employers are feeling the consequences of illness on the financial health of their businesses. While productivity lost through absenteeism is a bone of contention for many employers, the costs associated with ‘presenteeism’ are also increasingly being viewed as cause for concern for a company’s bottom line.

“Flu can lay even the healthiest individuals low for up to two weeks and may result in dangerous complications, including pneumonia. This year there have been a number of virulent viral infections doing the rounds, and a significant proportion of South Africa’s workforce have been affected to varying degrees,” says Dr Jacques Snyman, director of product development at Agility Health.

“Although flu is a common ailment at this time of year, it can lead to secondary infections and some dangerous complications. The 2016 flu season has seen some serious flu strains make their presence felt and, if not carefully managed, these can lead to debilitating complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia.”

While absenteeism is cause for concern in terms of productivity, ‘presenteeism’ – the practice of attending work in spite of illness, may present an even greater threat to the overall wellbeing of staff and the financial health of an organisation.

According to Lizette Bester, executive at Agility Corporate, an employee risk management company, lost productivity due to influenza and other illnesses affecting the workforce is having a major impact on South African businesses and, ultimately, the economy.

“If we were to add up the financial losses to the South African economy as a result of absenteeism, it would easily amount to several billion rand in lost revenue. A study by human resource software developer CAM Solutions found that South African corporates are experiencing rates of absenteeism at 3.5% to 6%, whereas it should be closer to 1.5% or three-and-three-quarter days of sick leave per 250 days worked,” she says.

“The same study found that 14 percent of the time, absenteeism was attributable to influenza, making it the most common ailment for which people claim sick leave. Flu and pneumonia have also been consistently recorded as leading natural causes of death in the annual Mortality and Causes of Death in South Africa studies conducted by Statistics South Africa, indicating that the severity of the illness is by no means exaggerated in the absenteeism figures associated with flu.”

“What employees and employers should consider is that flu is a highly infectious condition that can rapidly spread throughout a workforce and have a profound impact on the whole organisation’s productivity. When individuals come to work when they are ill, this exponentially increases the likelihood of the infection spreading to other staff members. Furthermore, sick people can make costly or even dangerous errors,” Bester observes.

“Not only is this extremely unpleasant for all concerned, but such an epidemic can rapidly spread through departments and reduce a whole company’s productive output to a trickle. It can easily take months to recoup such losses, and for this reason supervisors and managers should think carefully before censuring staff for taking sick leave to recuperate, within reasonable bounds.

“Where employees feel compelled to ‘tough it out’ with presenteeism for fear of repercussions, whether real or imagined, this can have even more profound effects of productivity than absenteeism. The more prevalent the practice of presenteeism, the more likely it is that employees will, ultimately, take longer to recover,” she adds.

Dr Snyman says that people who contract flu should therefore be encouraged to visit their doctor, stay at home and obtain sufficient bed rest. “This is particularly true for those whose jobs entail physical labour, such as in the mining and agricultural sectors for example, as flu and associated infections place additional strain on the heart muscles. It is therefore important to avoid strenuous activity until you have fully recovered from flu, as this can increase your risk of heart attack.

“Remember that when you are ill, your immune system is weakened and you are therefore more susceptible to secondary infections. Being in close contact with your colleagues not only puts you at risk of more severe illness, but also places your workmates at risk,” he warns.

There are also a number of hygiene precautions that people can take against spreading the flu virus. The virus can be transmitted through the air via vapour droplets in sneezes and coughs; therefore when you cough or sneeze, you should cover your mouth with a tissue or the crook of your elbow, as this will help to stop the spread of the virus.

Regular hand washing with anti-bacterial soaps and hand sanitiser can help to stop transmission of the virus. Some common surfaces that could harbour viruses include keypads on ATMs or mobile card machines, doorknobs, taps and any other item touched by a number of people daily.

Bester says that the benefits, in terms of productivity that employee wellness solutions, can outweigh the monetary costs. “Looking after the wellbeing of your employees is vital, not only for their own health but for the health of your business. Always keep in mind that workers’ health is a prerequisite for the sustainability of both your business and ultimately, the South African economy. Forgetting this important tenet of business can prove extremely costly for a business and its staff in the long run ” she concludes.