The Queen of Canada lives and works in a palace and is incredibly wealthy, but her illness over the weekend demonstrated one way in which she is rather like us: When she caught a bad case of gastroenteritis, she kept on going to work. British newspapers report the Queen started feeling sick on Friday but continued her public and private duties, and finally ended up in hospital on Sunday. In employment-speak, she is an example of “presenteeism,” a problem many employers and employees have been slow to recognize.
There are countless Canadians who demonstrate the same admirable stiff upper lip by going to work unwell. For many, it’s a question of money. Some people simply cannot afford to miss a day’s work because they are self-employed or don’t have sick day benefits to cover their lost income. But just as often, people choose to work when they can and should legitimately take a sick day, because it’s in their nature to be so dedicated, or because of a fear of losing favour with their bosses, or because they don’t want to shoulder their colleagues with additional work.
While absenteeism has long been a recognized workplace problem, employers, as well as insurance companies that manage benefits packages, have started to realize that presenteeism also lowers productivity and increases costs. We are not talking about coming to work with a cold and functioning at 90 per cent; the concern for employers is employees who come to work sick and get sicker, and who are then absent for a longer period or even damage their long-term health. An unwell person can also spread an infectious disease in an office.
Presenteeism also covers workaholism, mental illness, burnout and the simple, painful fact of being distracted at work by a major life change such as a death in the family or a divorce. Research into the issue is still relatively new, but one review of published studies on presenteeism carried out by the Sun Life Wellness Institute and the Richard Ivey School of Business (and reported about online) found that wellness programs can save companies more than $200 per employee per year. And that is just the bottom-line; the benefit to employees who feel secure staying home sick or confessing to being under the burden of serious personal problems or suffering a mental illness is impossible to measure in dollar figures, but is just as important.
The Queen has always led by example, and her instinct to continue to serve at age 86 even when ill is one of the many remarkable aspects of this long-reigning and well-loved monarch. But there is also a lesson in her story for companies and workers in the fact she ended up in hospital, and has now had to cancel most of her upcoming duties this week.