A new study has shown that it’s very common to go to work with flu-like symptoms – and health care workers are no exception
The authors of the study, which was published in PLOS ONE, say that this was a problem before the COVID-19 pandemic, and that today, attending the workplace while ill with influenza-like illness (ILI) is “just unacceptable”.
Co-author Professor Peter Collignon, from The Australian National University, said the study provides important lessons for the global coronavirus pandemic.
“It was bad enough before COVID-19 when it was just influenza and other respiratory viruses. But, now we have coronavirus it is more important than ever not go to work when you are unwell,” he said.
“This study shows too many people go to work when they are sick, and this includes many people on the frontline of healthcare.
“More than half of the global population of physicians and nurses went to work when they had flu like symptoms.”
While the survey did not single out pharmacists, it divided the 533 participants from 49 countries into two groups: physicians and nurses (249/533; 46.7%) and other professionals (284/533; 53.2%).
“Other professionals” consisted of 152 office workers (28.5%), 64 employed in education and academia (12%) and 68 in other fields (12.8%).
More than 95% of people said they would work through “minor” symptoms like a sore throat, sneezing/runny nose, or cough, and almost 60% said they would work even sick with flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches and fever.
“Most respondents (58.5%; 95% CI, 56.2–64.6) indicated that they would continue to work despite experiencing ILI symptoms,” the authors wrote.
“Analysis by occupational role showed no significant difference between HCWs (56.2%; 95% CI, 50.0–62.4) and non-HCWs (60.6%; 95% CI, 54.9–66.3) (p = 0.35).
“Staying at work while suddenly experiencing ILI symptoms was also common (65.7%; 95% CI, 61.6–69.7), with similar findings between HCWs (64.3%; 95% CI, 58.3–70.3) and non-HCWs (66.9%; 95% CI, 61.4–72.4) (p = 0.58).
“HCWs (45.8%; 95% CI, 39.6–52.0) were significantly less likely than other occupation groups (60.9%; 95% CI, 55.2–66.6) to avoid a colleague with ILI symptoms while at work (p = 0.001).
“There was no difference between HCWs (50.6%; 95% CI, 44.4–56.8) and non-HCWs (44.4%; 95% CI, 38.6–50.2) (p = 0.17) concerning avoidance behaviour of colleagues presenting sick with ILI symptoms at work and wearing a surgical face mask.
“Similarly, avoidance behaviour related to people with ILI symptoms outside of work during social encounters did not differ between HCWs (60.2%; 95% CI, 54.1–66.3) and other occupation groups (60.6%; 95% CI, 54.9–66.3).”
They wrote that, “As the world watches the current COVID-19 pandemic unfold, the global public threat of severe respiratory infectious disease has created an unprecedented challenge.
“Attention has been drawn to the transmission of respiratory disease between patients and healthcare workers (HCWs), thus highlighting the need to prioritize infection prevention that ensures safe delivery of patient care.
“Consequently, there is a growing interest in the phenomenon of sickness presenteeism, defined as attending work through illness, which has now been perceived as a challenge across several sectors… It is of particular concern in healthcare where there is a potentially serious public health impact due to the risk of cross-infection to susceptible populations and excess morbidity and mortality.
“Sickness presenteeism may compromise patient safety and the quality of healthcare delivered and is associated with societal costs through productivity loss, impaired judgement, and an increased risk of medical errors.”
Prof Collignon said that health care workers should not go to work sick.
“Doctors and nurses might feel they need to go out of their way to help others, but it is best for everyone if they do not present to work if unwell,” he said.
“It was bad before COVID-19 and now we are in a pandemic, going to work sick is just unacceptable,” Professor Collignon said.
The authors concluded that, “A future strategy to successfully prevent the transmission of ILI in healthcare settings should address sick-leave policy management, in addition to encouraging the uptake of influenza vaccine”.