Doing more harm than good? Study finds healthcare workers often provide care while ill

By: October 11th, 2019 Email This Post Print This Post

Many healthcare workers may be putting patients at risk by continuing to work when they have symptoms of cold, flu, or other respiratory illnesses, according to a new study published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology.

The study found that 95% of healthcare workers have worked while sick, most often because the symptoms were mild or began during their work shift.

“We found that physicians and people working in areas that required the most intensive contact with patients were less likely than other workers to stay home or to leave work if symptoms progressed after the start of the day,” said Brenda Coleman, PhD, clinical scientist in the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Research Unit at Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, and lead author of the study, in a release. “Managers and senior staff need to both model and insist on workers staying home when symptomatic as it protects both patients and coworkers from infection.”

The study, published in the journal for the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of  America, found that 92% of healthcare workers report to work while symptomatic for an acute respiratory viral illness. Hospital-acquired respiratory viral infections cause significant illness and death, in addition to increased healthcare costs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that healthcare workers with fever and respiratory symptoms consider temporary reassignment or exclusion from work while they are symptomatic.

Researchers conducted a four-season prospective cohort study of influenza and other respiratory illnesses in nine Canadian hospitals in Toronto, Hamilton, and Halifax. Healthcare workers in hospitals who worked more than 20 hours per week filled out daily online illness diaries whenever they developed symptoms; these included information about symptoms, possible exposure, attendance at work, reason for work or absence, and medical consultations.

In all, 10,156 illness diaries were completed by 2,728 participants. Diaries of workers who were not scheduled to work were excluded, which left 5,281 diaries for analysis. Sixty-nine percent of participants said they worked during an illness because their symptoms were mild and they felt well enough to work, 11% said they had things to finish at work, 8% said they felt obligated to work, and 3% responded that they couldn’t afford to take the time off. Half of the participants said they had episodes of acute respiratory viral illness during influenza season, with 95% of those working one or more days of their illness. Of the study participants, 79% said they were entitled to paid sick leave.

Coleman said the study illustrates the need to educate healthcare workers, managers, workplace health/safety/infection control staff, and administrators about the transmission risk associated with respiratory viral infection. Organizations should also clarify what symptoms require exclusion from work and develop and roll out policies for working while symptomatic, she added.


By Sheila Auer on October 14th, 2019 at 10:47 am

The main problem is that companies/hospitals punish staff for calling off when they are sick. They do not supply enough sick days and staff cannot afford to take off work because of this.

I agree with Sheilas comment.
If we call in, we get in trouble.
Especially working at a hospital you would think they would want you to stay home so you don’t get others sick, especially patients. But that’s not the case at all!

By Kathy Payne on October 25th, 2019 at 3:24 pm

I agree with staying home when your sick, but when your on a point system and you use to many points from staying home when sick you can get written up or suspended!

I completely agree with the above comments. I too work at a hospital and have worked in different roles the many years I’ve been there and per hospital policy we’re only allowed so many hours of sick time and if you go over, you get punished, possibly terminated (if its a consistent so many quarters in a row). They stress staff to stay home when ill, but yet we get punished if we do. I would have to say by far, working in the health care is a lot more harsh on attendance than any other work site I’ve worked at, which is surprising. I know they want staff to be accountable for attendance, but when your telling us to stay home ill and you have staff/doctors notes backing up that you really are and not faking it, it shouldn’t be counted against you.

By Ashlie Pilarski on January 10th, 2020 at 2:46 pm

If they actually granted sick days we would stay home ill. Quit punishing us for being sick!!


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