Stay home when sick, and go on vacation already

Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

At one of my favorite breakfast places this week, I asked if a beloved waitress was still working there. No, replied the manager — she had left for a position at a place with benefits.

The message, apart from how I must stop growing attached to wait staff, is clear: Far too many of the US workforce, especially in areas such as healthcare and the service industry, have little to no paid vacation time or sick leave. When a nursing home with better vacation policies or a restaurant with paid sick leave presents a job to your good workers, be prepared to say adieu.

Unfortunately, even with paid sick leave, sometimes it's up to managers to shove visibly sick employees out the door. In a new poll and report conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, most working adults said they go to work when they are sick. Half of workers in medical jobs say they “always or most of the time” go to work when they have a cold or flu. The biggest reason people don't use their paid sick days are because people said they “weren't sick enough,” while one-third said there wouldn't be enough people to cover their work. Another 20% said their workload made it too hard to take sick days.

The problem is when people are sick, they transmit that disease to their coworkers and, in nursing homes, to vulnerable seniors. One study found that paid sick days would reduce flu transmission rates, and also found an interesting alternative for “flu days.” When employees had one or two paid days to recover from the flu, it resulted in a 25% decrease in flu infections on day 1 and a 40% decrease on day two. When I worked at a hospital, it was drilled into us that we had to stay home when sick, as it would be on our heads if we transmitted our germs to patients or other clinicians.

If there's any good news for healthcare, it's the dawning realization that a lack of paid sick leave ultimately costs money. While more than half of workers in office jobs, medical jobs, schools, warehouses, factories or manufacturing facilities, retail outlets or stores say their job offers them paid sick leave, only 42% of those in construction/outdoor jobs and 22% of those in restaurant jobs say their workplace offers them this benefit.

Still, in order to improve, you need to examine what's happening with your night shift workers. Among shift workers responding in the poll, more than 6 in 10 said they still go to work when sick. While more than one-third said they chose shift work because it made it easier to care for their family, workers with low-paying jobs are more likely to work alternative shifts. Yet their sleeping habits, eating habits, social life and family life suffer. Even more troubling is that 54% said they sometimes face potentially dangerous situations at work, compared to 38% of daytime workers.

In looking at demographics of your facility, it's also worth evaluating the age of your workforce to understand trends. Believe it or not, the report found “entitled” millennials are the ones most likely to be burned out. Compared to workers over age 35, millennials are less likely to have paid personal days or vacation, and 62% report they work in average paying jobs. Almost half are working on overtime or on weekends.

As much as I love my job, I also deeply appreciate having paid sick leave and a solid vacation package. I recently returned from a restorative week off spent traipsing around Norway with my family, and it troubles me that in the report fewer than half of all workers who receive paid vacation days used all or most of them.

Don't be like the people in that report. Even if you are a driven, dedicated employee, the best way to stay that way is to take time off to explore a new place, pursue a hobby, or visit with loved ones. Even if you spend the week not checking your work email, sleeping 10 hours a day and exercising via a “staycation,” I guarantee you'll come back to your long-term care facility a far healthier and happier person rather than the burned out husk of an administrator, director of nursing or other valued employee.

Follow Elizabeth Newman @TigerELN.


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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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