With COVID-19 cases surging nationwide due to the Omicron variant and the CDC recently reducing the isolation time for people who test positive, there is a growing pressure for people to still go to work when sick.
Dr. Elizabeth K. Eger, Assistant Texas State Professor of Communication Studies, researched people's work experiences before and during the pandemic and discusses the pressure workers face after testing positive for COVID-19.
"Presenteeism is this idea of working while sick or with a health condition. As you mentioned, we often hear about absenteeism, people not showing up to work, but this is really showing up to work when you shouldn't, when you're sick," Dr. Eger said.
Research shows there was an increase in presenteeism when there is no structural support for employees to take time off.
"So, if they don't have paid sick leave or they are required to get a COVID test, think about right now how difficult it is to get a PCR test, to get even a rapid test to be able to show your employer you are sick. What's happening is people are having to go to work while sick before they even know if they're positive because their employers won't let them call out," Dr. Eger said. "I think employees are being put in difficult positions to have to make choices about are they going to be able to put food on the table, are they going to get paid if they take sick leave?"
Dr. Eger said another reason some people who test positive for COVID-19 are still going into work is due to the pressure from their employer.
"In some cases, employees are even told to come into work while sick because of short staffing," Dr. Eger said. "Those trends really vary, differing on occupations as well as things like paid sick leave. Do you even have the opportunity to take time off? Will you be penalized if you do?"
Dr. Eger said the CDC reducing recommended quarantine and isolation time is another contributing factor.
"Before, employees could say, 'Hey, I really shouldn't come to work. The CDC says I need to stay at home.' Now, even if someone has a positive test, once they're fever-free, they're encouraged to go back to work with a mask," Dr. Eger said.
At a time when COVID-19 cases are surging due to the contagious new variant, Dr. Eger hopes her research will be part of creating newer and healthier practices for workers in the U.S.
"I think we really need to challenge these norms of the United States, of working while sick and think about what it would mean to take care of ourselves as whole people at work, and have our employers encourage us to have healthier practices," Dr. Eger said. "Especially right now with the surge of COVID-19, showing up sick can really put yourself and your coworkers, and even customers, in danger."