“Productivity” Trumps Flu Prevention

More than half (53%) of respondents to a survey from Staples report having gone to work with the flu—despite knowing how this might affect their coworkers and company line.

In its sixth annual flu season survey, Staples found that most working Americans have some understanding of how to stay healthy—or at least avoid infecting other people with a contagious virus—but few are willing (or able) to stay out of the office for long if they become infected.

“It’s encouraging to see that employees have a strong understanding of flu risks and prevention, but there’s still work to be done,” says Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona. “The flu wreaks havoc on U.S. employees and, in turn, on businesses every year. Simple measures such as cleaning, sanitizing and limiting exposure can make a huge difference.”

Ninety percent of respondents know they can protect themselves from the flu by eating healthily and washing their hands regularly. Roughly half (54%) know flu viruses can live up to three days on a surface, and 43% know they may be contagious for a full day before flu symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after getting sick.

Still, of the one-third (30%) of respondents who caught the flu last year, 55% went into the office. Six in 10 (59%) say they should stay home for two to three days when sick—88% even encouraged sick colleagues to go home—but only 43% actually do so.

NEXT: Pressure to work and workplace losses.

According to the survey, most employees (58%) come to work sick because they feel there is too much going on to take a day off, nearly double the 30% who said the same in 2012. Half feel pressure to be at work or “tough it out,” and 25% don’t feel confident that someone else can handle their work when they’re out of the office.

Business decisionmakers reported feeling more pressure to go to work when sick, and this group was more likely to go to the office despite not feeling well—54% versus 45% of office workers. Thirty percent of these decisionmakers reported that their boss expects them to come to work if they have the flu, compared with 19% of office workers, and 39% think doing so demonstrates strong initiative, compared with 28% of office workers.

“The flu is responsible for an estimated 70 million missed work days and billions of dollars in lost office productivity each year,” says Chris Correnti, vice president of Staples Facility Solutions at Staples Advantage, the business-to-business division of Staples.

According to Staples, workers agree that disruption is roughly equal to that of a natural disaster, worse than a product/customer service issue and nearly as damaging as a security breach. Two-thirds (66%) of respondents say presentism—going into work sick but not maintaining productivity—is worse for a business than if the employee stayed home, up significantly from 31% last year.

The survey was conducted by Redshift Research among 1,500 full-time office workers who spend at least 50% of their time working in an office environment; 704 were managers and the remaining 796 were general office workers. 

-Sara Kelly