Presenteeism: Taking sick leave shouldn't be a luxury

Presenteeism costs Australian workplaces $34 billion a year. Picture: Shutterstock
Presenteeism costs Australian workplaces $34 billion a year. Picture: Shutterstock

COVID has brought many workplace issues to the fore, from the development of flexible work options, work-from-home infrastructure, adaptability to changing work needs and the importance of not being at work if you are unwell.

And yet, the one thing that hasn't changed is sick leave entitlement and the culture around taking it.

Over the course of my employed career, there was a cultural expectation that you'd push through being sick to get to work.

I called this the Warrior Code: there was a sense of workplace honour attributed to feeling sick and going to work anyway.

However, there is an actual name for it: presenteeism.

Before the COVID chaos of 2020, an AIG report stated that presenteeism costs Australian workplaces $34 billion a year.

That's not a typo.

I said billion.

Broken down, that's 8 per cent of the average company's payroll.

But the dollar value isn't all that's lost.

Presenteeism costs companies productivity, performance, engagement, morale and cohesive team culture.

There's literally nothing to gain from adhering to the Warrior Code.

COVID hasn't erased presenteeism, but it has changed it.

Carol Lewis from Human Equation talked about the e-presenteeism we've been dealing with during these strange times.

For many of us, COVID changed our work experiences and with that came different issues: disruptions, home-schooling, and cognitive distraction due to the uncertainty and stress of the pandemic.

All of this led to reduced productivity, performance, and engagement.

However, working from home has also meant that people feel obliged to be working even when they are mentally or physically under the weather, so while presenteeism changed during 2020, it certainly didn't disappear even though many of us were at home.

It can feel like a cop out to "call in sick" when you weren't coming into work anyway.

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, full-time permanent workers are entitled to 10 days combined sick and carer's leave and part-time workers receive a pro-rata number of days.

The balance of unpaid sick/carer's leave at the end of the year carries forward.

You are also entitled to unpaid sick or carer's leave and your job will be protected for at least three months.

However, if you are casual, you are entitled to nothing.

If you don't work, you don't get paid.

Currently, there are 168,987 jobs advertised on Seek and 36,979 of them are earmarked as 'casual' which reflects the labour force representation almost perfectly.

The spin put on casual work is that it's flexible, thus providing the employer with workers when they need them without an ongoing commitment, and providing the employee with work without the ongoing obligations held by a permanent staff member.

The cost of this flexibility lies in casual loading from the employer's perspective, and no leave entitlements or security from the employee's perspective.

However, the data on casual employment from the ABS suggests that the 'flexibility' that is provided is really about increasing the power of the employer and diminishing that of the employee, as The Conversation writes.


This data tells us that these leave-deprived workers have steady and ongoing employment, just without the benefits, and the security that they can step away temporarily if they are unwell and know that they can survive financially, and have a job to step back into.

There are many complicated issues involved with 'just not going to work when you feel sick', as directed by every health authority everywhere.

It seems like the only real excuse for a "sickie" is when you were faking it to score a long weekend or when you were hungover.

Then, it was all a bit of a laugh.

Calling in sick (when you really are) isn't just about making sure that you don't spread your germs to colleagues and wipe out the entire office for a week.

It's also important because you need to take care of yourself.

We so often seem to justify our actions based on how they affect others (which is great), and forget that we count, too (not so great).

If you have a headache, are in pain, feeling sick or mentally exhausted, you need to make sure that you are taking care of yourself.

It worries me that 22 per cent of our workforce don't have this 'luxury' through virtue of their casual work contract and that those who do don't feel like they can.

After 2020 almost crumbled us all, 2021 needs to be the Year of Us.