October 29th 2015

Most clinicians are programmed to believe that calling in sick is unprofessional.

Most clinicians are programmed to believe thatcalling in sickis unprofessional. They tell themselves that they will create an unmanageable workload for their colleagues and are being dramatic for wanting to stay home.

But when clinicians don’t take a sick day, are they putting patients’ health at risk? An editorial published inJAMA Pediatricsdelves into the potential implications of health care professionals working while sick.

Most health care workers cite an obligation to help their patients and a responsibility to their colleagues as reasons for working while they’re under the weather. But the nature of the job entails close encounters with patients, which increases the risk of infection transmission.

Some communicable diseases are more contagious than others, as is the case with influenza. Due to this, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that employees with influenza should not return to work until 24 hours after they are fever free or 7 days, whichever is longer.

A study published in theAmerican Journal of Public Healthconcurs with this recommendation, as it found that 72% of transmitted illnesses was due to employees working while sick. The authors found that having a “flu day” policy consisting of 2 extra paid sick days reduced the incidence of workplace transmissions by nearly 40%.1

For now, only 61% of private sector employees get any paid sick leave—a stark difference from their government-employed counterparts who fare much better at 90%.2

More paid sick leave can dramatically reduce transmission of serious infections by health care workers. The line of what constitutes a serious infection and thus paid sick time is blurred, but it should be more concise.

A system that defines key parameters of a more serious illness such as vomiting, bloody diarrhea, or fever can be implemented by the workplace to ensure that those who need to take some days off can do so with little to no repercussions. Taking this action will lower patients’ risk of getting infected.

References:

  1. Kumar S, Grefenstette JJ, Galloway D, Albert SM, Burke DS. Policies to reduce influenza in the workplace: impact assessments using an agent-based model.Am J Public Health. 2013;103(8):1406-1411.
  2. Employee Benefits in the United States. Bureau of Labor Statistics; 2015. Available at: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/ebs2.pdf. Accessed October 23, 2015.

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