WFH: Working From Hospital? Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis sparks concern over culture of working while ill

October 13, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Reports of US President, Donald Trump, continuing to work despite being diagnosed with Covid-19 have prompted discussions about the dangers of “presenteeism” in the workplace and whether employers ought to review their illness policies in order to discourage working while poorly.

What does this mean?

Never before have concerns about workplace safety received more media coverage than in recent months. As the Covid-19 pandemic affects millions of workers across the globe, many employers have shifted to predominantly home-working set-ups where possible. However, work-life balance is notoriously difficult when your bedroom doubles as your office. With the rise of working-from-home, the line between a justifiable health-related absence and when to simply “soldier on” is becoming increasingly unclear. 

Whether working from home or in the office, many employees are wary of taking sick leave for fear of appearing lazy in the eyes of their colleagues. This can lead to “presenteeism”, a term used to describe when employees feel pressure to continue working despite being unwell. The recent photos of Donald Trump hard at work while receiving hospital treatment for Covid-19 (available here) are a prime example of this phenomenon and beg the question: If work can now be done from virtually anywhere, when should employees take a sick day?

What's the big picture effect?

In line with the Health & Safety Executive’s Guidance, employers have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of their employees. These steps include offering Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and fulfilling their obligations under the Equality Act 2010. Therefore, companies who encourage employees to continue working while unwell (even remotely) may actually be putting themselves at legal risk. This is of particular concern if the employee in question’s health worsens or if, as with Trump, colleagues fall ill as a result.

According to Pinsent Masons’ Kate Dodd, “allowing a culture where ill health and absence are seen as signs of weakness can be extremely counter-productive”. Besides the risk of infecting others, many employees who work while unwell perform sub-optimally. This, in turn, increases inefficiency and often leads to unnecessary mistakes being made. In fact, a recent study from insurance company Vitality showed that illness-related presenteeism cost British businesses the equivalent of £81bn in 2018.

In today’s day and age, it’s crucial that employers take the health and safety of their workers seriously. To protect their employees from harm and themselves from legal liability, employers should promote a culture of work-life balance and take proactive steps to actively discourage staff from working when ill. Furthermore, as the severity of Covid-19 prompts discussions surrounding the duty to disclose one’s individual health status, perhaps we might also see new regulatory policies imposing liability on workers who knowingly enter the workplace while sick.

With this in mind and although it may seem counter-intuitive, sometimes the most productive (and ethical) thing for an employee to do is take the day off, curl up with a bowl of chicken soup and get back to work only when symptom-free!

Report written by Jade Jordan

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