Preventing infectious illness in the workplace: Study

Workplace Illness Management Sick

Flu vaccines and hand hygiene programs have been consistently shown to save businesses money by reducing absenteeism and presenteeism (people attending work while sick), according to a research paper published in March 2017.

Titled Assessing workplace infectious illness management in Australian workplaces, the researchers interviewed management or safety officers from 14 Australian organisations and analysed other research around workplace infectious illness management.

It found that while workplaces are generally knowledgeable regarding common infectious illness prevention techniques, there is a “substantial lack of knowledge” around the efficacy or cost-benefits of those techniques.

Without identifying which prevention techniques were best, the research paper discussed an analysis of 10 studies that assessed the cost benefit of a workplace influenza vaccination. They found nine studies reported favourable cost-benefit ratios.

Furthermore six of seven studies that examined the effectiveness of workplace hand hygiene programs (the majority using alcohol-based hand sanitisers) found a significant decline in infectious illness rates.

Other mitigation strategies which were found to be supported by literature include respiratory etiquette reminders, environmental cleaning and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves and masks. The paper stated that the effects of workplace wellness programs on infectious illness incidence and absenteeism are not documented, but that they are cost beneficial for employers.


The business burden of illness:

With 60 per cent of workplace absences related to infectious illnesses they are a significant burden on business and result in increased workload and subsequent stress for remaining employees – especially among small businesses, according to the paper.

However literature shows that presenteeism associated with the common cold costs businesses more than it does for absenteeism. Those who come to work while sick are considerably less productive than their healthy counterparts and the cost of this lost productivity is thought to be higher than losses related to sick leave. These findings were supported by the interviewees.

According to the paper, workers attend work while they are sick for a combination of reasons including a lack of paid sick leave, workload pressures, business impact, loyalty to their employer,  specialised tasks that cannot be performed by others, a high level of job satisfaction, and guilt about increasing others’ workloads.

To combat that, some businesses interviewed had a policy of mandatory absence from work when ill, while all businesses reported preferring employees to stay at home when ill. The paper said that implementing paid sick leave has been shown to help reduce presenteeism.


Infection illness mitigation strategy selection processes 

Of those businesses interviewed, the efficacy of a particular mitigation strategy was not the greatest motivator to take action.

Rather, the main motivator was their legal obligations and possible penalties for not adhering to standards.  Other drivers included profit and productivity, duty of care to employees and clients, and the prevention of the reoccurrence of a previous serious infectious disease incident.

The paper said that strategies such as workplace influenza vaccinations would be more common if employees were more accepting of them.

Other reasons given by interviewees for not implementing infectious illness strategies included remote business locations, isolated employees and a lack of shared equipment.


Workplace infectious illness prevention strategies

  • Flu vaccines
  • Hand hygiene programs
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Respiratory etiquette reminders
  • Environmental cleaning


Reasons people come to work while sick

  • Lack of paid sick leave
  • Workload pressures
  • Business impact and loyalty
  • Specialised tasks
  • High job satisfaction
  • Guilt


Sign Up for Exclusive Content