Why home workers who are ill should not work


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With the onset of colder weather, inevitably the number of people with common colds and flu will rise, in addition to the increasing rate of Covid-19 infections.

In more normal times, people feeling under the weather would call in sick and spend the day or days recuperating. Now, however, with so many people working from home, workers may feel more inclined to try to prove their usefulness and productivity levels by continuing to try to work.

Research has shown that people who regularly work from home do indeed continue to toil away despite being ill and take fewer sick days off then office-based staff. This is known as sickness presenteeism, a phrase with negative connotations but some might argue that if employees can work safely despite not feeling well, they should continue as long as they are not risking passing on the illness to others. Some may even fear that without a daily sense of purpose their conditions may deteriorate.

It is commonplace for people to still want to work from home when they are sick but the employer must not be seen to enforce this nor to encourage those employees” – Vanessa James, Ashfords LLP

Alison Collins, reader in leadership and management, Manchester Metropolitan University, writes: “People who work from home also tend to take fewer sick days than office-based staff. Many actually appreciate the ability to work from home while ill, as it allows them to keep on top of their workload, while avoiding the strain of commuting to the office or working a full day. It also prevents workers spreading contagious illnesses to their colleagues – something at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the moment.”

However, she adds, if people feel pressured to work despite being ill, research suggests it can have negative consequences for the employee and the company. Studies have found that workers diagnosed with acute respiratory illness or influenza during the 2017-18 influenza season were more likely to carry on working if they could work from home than those without the option. But such illnesses require rest and time away from work pressures to recover properly.

Collins says that although employees can still work with minor illnesses such as colds, “workers and employers need to be aware of the potential health risk of working through health conditions that require rest and time to recover”.

She points out that working at home makes it harder for managers to see when employees are ill – so they are less likely to tell people to take sick leave. Companies need to actively encourage employees to take time away from work.

This may be particularly true when it comes to Covid-19 with its variable and inconsistent symptoms. It is widely established that among its main indicators are high temperature, a continuous cough and a loss of sense of smell or taste. But many have tested positive despite a lack of clear symptoms or a suspicion they just had a common cold. As the autumn rolls forward into winter it could be that a large number of us develop a slight paranoia over how we feel at any moment.

Some people don’t want to stop working because that would make think about other problems, whether its illness or other aspects of their lives” – Sarah-Jane Last, founder, The Work Psychologists

Added to this, many more people than normal are getting flu jabs. These commonly have side-effects similar to mild flu. These symptoms again could be confused with Covid-19.

All of this leaves managers in a delicate position with their remote workers; they must guard against employees’ temptation to continue working at all costs but also ensure that the company continues to be productive.

Where does this temptation come from? Business psychologist Sarah-Jane Last, founder of The Work Psychologists explains why for some people, stopping working for illness is so difficult: “It’s a lot easier to keep going. They don’t want to stop because that would make think about other problems, whether its illness or other aspects of their lives. This is very common in high performing, high achieving people. And there are a lot of people worried that they’ll lose their job.

“Everything’s being artificially propped up,” she tells Personnel Today. “You only see people on Zoom; you don’t see the real person. The longer term impact of a heavy cold will affect your performance. It doesn’t matter what you’re ill with.” She said that Google’s work in developing the concept of psychological safety under its Project Aristotle has provided insights here. “It means do you feel able to tell your leader how you really feel. Where there’s no psychological safety people feel under pressure to continue working come what may. Old school leaders still think the more they push someone they better it is for the company.”

Fortunately, she says, “younger people tend to have a different attitude … self care and reaching out for help is much stronger among people in their twenties and thirties.”

Employment law specialists warn against the urge to continue working. Personnel Today spoke to two who were adamant that employers should make no distinction over the place of work when it comes to illness.

Vanessa James, partner at Ashfords, says: “Employees who are clearly sick ought not to be encouraged to work – even if they are at home. It is commonplace for people to still want to work from home when they are sick but the employer must not be seen to enforce this nor to encourage those employees.

Echoing Collins’s warning about working through health conditions that need recovery time, James warns: “Employers who do pressure, or even persuade sick employees to work could find themselves being blamed for any later health deterioration or, if the health reason related to a disability there could be liability arising under the Equality Act.”

“Employees who are unwell after a flu jab are not generally emerging as a significant problem for employers but rather they are being dealt with under the normal sickness provisions for the employer. If someone is sick, whether that is for Covid or flu jab-related then they are treated in the normal way as any other sickness case und er the employers policy. The employer does not have a ‘choice’ – in such circumstances the employee is taken as ‘sick’ and dealt with under the normal procedures as such.”

Workers and employers need to be aware of the potential health risk of working through health conditions that require rest and time to recover” – Alison Collins, Manchester Metropolitan University

For Patrick Glencross, senior associate at law firm Cripps Pemberton Greenish, the employee must be responsible and exercise judgement: “It is the employee’s responsibility and prerogative to determine if they are well enough to continue working.

He agrees with James: “The employer will face practical challenges and possible legal risks if it pressurises the employee to continue working when unwell, not least the prospect that this will aggravate the employee’s illness and so prolong their absence from work or impact on their mental health. Working when unwell could compromise their cognitive abilities and decision-making, leading to work errors and under-performance.

“If the employee is off sick with coronavirus symptoms, they will qualify for statutory sick pay from day one of their absence, and the employer can claim back this payment under the government’s rebate scheme.

”Businesses should support their staff obtaining flu jabs as a means to reduce sickness absence in their workplace and generally in the wider public interest. They could organise a workplace vaccination programme in the workplace although currently the demand for these services is extremely high.

“Otherwise staff should be encouraged to arrange their appointments at times which cause least disruption, anticipating that it is common to experience mild side-effects from the vaccination such as slightly raised temperature and muscle ache.”

It must be hoped that a high proportion of employers and employees will heed this legal advice as public anxiety over symptoms continues to rise over the coming months.

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