“However much my shoulder burned and stung and ached, the pleasure at being able to lie in total peace was greater.” This is how Karl Ove Knausgaard felt after he broke his collarbone at football practice. The Norwegian writer had spent the past four years taking care of a young family while also trying to work on his first book. Now his injury had lifted the obligation to constantly be busy. He was free to lie there on the couch and watch an Italian football game.
While Knausgaard was able to enjoy his incapacity (and later write about it), most of us cannot. A new report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 86% of the 1,000 organisations surveyed had noticed employees coming into work when they were ill. This was up from only 26% in 2010.
Coming to work ill – presenteeism – is disastrous for individuals. It means their illnesses last longer and they feel miserable. It is also terrible for businesses. Sick workers spread their lurgies and drag down productivity. The economy also suffers. One estimate puts the annual cost of presenteeism at £15.1bn a year – and that is just for mental health-related illnesses. That’s £605 for every employee.
Our willingness to suffer at work may be ruining our companies, our economy and our lives. One step towards solving the nation’s woeful productivity is putting a stop to such presenteeism. Employers need to ensure their workers are encouraged to stay away when they are ill. This means allowing people time off for both physical and mental health issues. Bosses also need to ensure that working conditions are not making people sick. After all, according to the book Dying for a Paycheck by Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, the workplace is the fifth leading cause of death in the US.
Workers need to take responsibility, too. They should stop themselves heading into work when they are ill and simply enjoy the pleasures of a sick day. If you can’t function because you are blocked up with flu, then just stay at home. Maybe the first step is to train yourself in the art of taking time off work by joining the one in five Britons who claim to pull a sickie each year.