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Mass. Has Paid Sick Leave, Now We Need To Change Culture Of Working While Ill

(Office for Emergency Management/Office of War Information/Domestic Operations Branch/Bureau of Special Services, via Wikimedia Commons)

(Office for Emergency Management/Office of War Information/Domestic Operations Branch/Bureau of Special Services, via Wikimedia Commons)

As of this month, we here in Massachusetts can proudly say that we enjoy the right to paid sick time. (Those of us who work for companies with 11 or more employees, anyway; workers for smaller companies can only get unpaid time.)

The law took effect July 1, and state Attorney General Maura Healey says that while it’s not the first such law in the country, “it is the most expansive.”

Yay, right? But here’s the next challenge: It’s not enough to have the law on the books; workers have to actually use it. And a new study of health care workers suggests that when it comes to calling in sick, we may often be our own worst enemies. (OK, yes, our bosses may also be our worst enemies.) It’s a sobering look: If even doctors and nurses don’t stay home when they should because of their workplace culture, what hope do the rest of us have?

The study in JAMA Pediatrics found that among more than 500 doctors and other staffers surveyed at a large children’s hospital in Philadelphia, 83 percent reported working while sick over the past year. Like, really sick: 30 percent had diarrhea, 16 percent had fever and more than half had “acute onset of significant respiratory symptoms,” which sounds to me like the kind of cough that can spread germs.

Why, oh why, would the staffers who understand best the risks of infection still come to work while possibly infectious? Solving that conundrum was the aim of the paper, titled “Reasons Why Physicians and Advanced Practice Clinicians Work While Sick.”

“Working while sick was regarded as a badge of courage, and ill physicians who stayed home were regarded as slackers.”

Among the reasons that respondents deemed important:

• 98.7 percent cited not wanting to let colleagues down

• 94.9 percent cited staffing concerns

• 92.5 percent cited not wanting to let patients down

• 64 percent cited fear of ostracism by colleagues

• 63.8 percent cited continuity of care

Other concerns that emerged from free-text responses: “extreme difficulty finding coverage (64.9 percent), a strong cultural norm to come to work unless remarkably ill (61.1 percent) and ambiguity about what constitutes ‘too sick to work’ (57 percent).” Continue reading

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