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The answer should restore a little of your faith in humanity. For the most part, health care workers call in with legitimate illness.
In an era when the media image of nurses and other health care workers is tainted by cynicism, that conclusion may be somewhat surprising, but a recent study found that almost three-quarters of workers who call in sick are indeed suffering an illness.1
"I worked in occupational health in a hospital for 13 years and have been working in occupational health in manufacturing for 12 years, so I’ve seen a number of employees who have missed time from work," says Candace Sandal, DNP, MBA, an occupational health nurse practitioner who was principle author of the study about workers using sick time.
"It turns out that workers really are sick when they say they’re sick," Sandal says. "I found in the study that workers do feel guilty when they miss work and they consider the impact it will have on their coworkers."
Investigators surveyed students of a large university who held jobs in various industries.
"We chose a university so the study wouldn’t be linked to a particular workplace survey," she notes. "Of the people who responded, 73% said they call in sick because they are sick."
Of the 27% who called in sick when they were well, the non-sick reasons were varied, but included the need to take care of a sick child, disliking their job, and needing a mental health day, Sandal says.
The study’s findings suggest that hospital employee health programs could help reduce worker absenteeism through strategies that prevent and mitigate common worker illnesses, Sandal says.
"If they were in contact at the start of an illness then we can intervene and treat, so they don’t need to miss work," she says. Instead, what typically happens is people hang in there with a burgeoning cold or sinus infection or other illness until they get sicker and sicker and have to miss work, she says.
Sandal offers these suggestions for hospital employee health programs:
Educate staff about common symptoms and need for early treatment. Pamphlets could be placed in hospital work stations, listing common symptoms of early upper respiratory infections, gastrointestinal illness, eye diseases, and rashes, which could indicate chicken pox or shingles. It’s particularly important for hospital employees to report their symptoms early because of the potential of being contagious when working with or around patients, Sandal says.
Promote an on-site employee health clinic. When new employees are hired, it’s a good practice to give them a tour of the employee health clinic.
Meet with employees who have high rates of calling in sick. "It’s not always what it seems, and this is an occupational health nurse’s role not a manager’s role because managers shouldn’t get involved in health issues," she says.
Provide stress reduction education and programs: Every unit in a hospital has its own unique stressors, Sandal says. "I worked in ICU for a long time," she notes. "I understand that critical care stress, but I haven’t seen any research trend showing that one hospital unit is more vulnerable to stress than another."
Employee health can address hospital-wide employee stress by offering staff a stress reduction program. This could include providing a limited number of free visits with a provider who is skilled in stress reduction, on or off-site, she suggests.
Change health care worker’s "me-last" culture. Nurses and other health care workers often operate within a culture in which they care about everyone else’s health and welfare before thinking of their own, Sandal says.
Having an easily accessible onsite clinic for workers can help encourage them to seek help when they’re beginning to feel unwell.
"Employee health programs should advertise what they’re doing for workers and show the effect they’re having on that population," Sandal says. "It’s time and money well spent."