As Omicron infections and winter ills mount, absences from work have understandably risen.
The number of employed people in the March 2022 quarter who gave sickness, illness, or injury as the main reason for being off work for a full week was up 67 per cent compared with the same quarter last year, according to Stats NZ.
Of the 2.8 million employed people in the March 2022 quarter, 44,200 were away from work for a full week because of sickness, illness, or injury, amounting to 1.6 per cent of employed people. That's an increase of 17,700 people compared with the March 2021 quarter.
The March quarter ended when community cases of Covid peaked at more than 20,000 new reported infections each day. Next month's quarterly figures should also show even higher levels of absences, given the trajectory of the Covid infections during this period. Cases are tracking upwards again for what appears to be a second wave of infections.
Another factor in the rise in sick leave - the highest in five years, compared with the same quarter in 2021 - is the Government doubled employees' minimum sick leave entitlement to 10 days at this time last year.
Given the Omicron surge and the extended leave allowance, less than 2 per cent of the workforce requiring a week off does suggest a "soldier-on" attitude prevails. A Southern Cross/Business NZ workplace survey in 2017 found more than 40 per cent of Kiwis would still go to work when sick. Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield yesterday estimated half of Covid infections were unreported.
Research shows sick workers who have used up paid leave, or contractors who don't get paid when not working, will keep turning up while sick. However, those people are likely to be less productive - and potentially spread sickness to others. This, in turn, compounds employers' problems.
This may now be even worse given the cost of living crisis, with some simply unable to afford to take unpaid sick leave. Another issue may be obtaining medical certificates, with over-burdened GPs and clinical practices unable to take appointments, or advising clients with Covid or flu symptoms to stay away.
An important consideration is that infections are most likely to spread at early onset, when an illness first presents as coughing and sneezing. A person may not feel too bad, with serious symptoms such as headaches and fever yet to set in. But they are often at their potentially most damaging stage to others at this point.
It's an expensive situation. Employee absences were estimated pre-Covid to cost the New Zealand economy more than $1.79 billion a year.
The solution then is to encourage staff with any troubling symptoms to stay away, perhaps working from home in cases where possible and when sickness is mild. Workplaces should also be structured to limit spread whenever reasonable precautions can be made. Mask-wearing should be endorsed.
More than ever, employers and employees need to communicate and be flexible to best manage a way through this big sickie.