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Feeling obligated to work when sick

As a small business owner, it can feel impossible to take time off, even if you’re unwell.

Who will see clients, get work done, manage suppliers and keep money coming in if you aren’t there? It can also feel like you will have to work harder to catch up and be even more stressed once you get back.

But, did you know that working when sick can cost you more over time than actually taking time off?

What is presenteeism?

Working when unwell (either physically or mentally) is known as presenteeism. It has the potential to cost your business a great deal in lost productivity due to not being able to perform duties to your usual standard. There is also the risk of injury, the potential to make others unwell, or be harmful to the image of your business.

According to a report by Beyond Blue and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC),1 there are significant costs to Australian business due to mental health-related absenteeism and presenteeism:

  • Absenteeism, being away from work when unwell - $4.7 billion per year;
  • Presenteeism, attending work when unwell but being less productive - $6.1 billion per year.

Mental health concerns are one of the most common causes of health-related absenteeism and presentism. In a study by Everymind, over three-quarters of small business owners surveyed reported going to work despite problems with their physical or mental health, and on average estimated that their productivity was almost 40% lower on those days.2 Working while unwell is likely to prolong the time you need to recover and cause greater stress and strain on your wellbeing. While it seems counterintuitive, taking a break could be much more cost-effective and beneficial for you and your business in the long run.

Make a plan

Having a plan in place will allow you to take a break, rest and recover and worry less about your business when you are not there. Think about:

  • Who can step in? Is there an employee you can train up to take over your role or the most essential tasks if needed? If you are a sole trader, can you find a trusted peer or family member who can hold the fort or contact clients or suppliers to let them know about your absence? Ensure those you’ve identified are trained in advance so everyone feels prepared.
  • Prioritise your business functions: Ensure your business tasks and responsibilities are prioritised in the order of what is essential in the short term, to what can be left unattended until you return.
  • Document your business processes: Develop a manual for running your business that steps through the process of carrying out essential tasks and functions, and provide a copy to those you’ve identified to step in while you’re away. This manual should include a contingency plan to action if you are away sick, and a script on how to notify clients of your absence.
  • Use your networks: Do you have an industry peer or friendly competitor you can redirect work or clients to while you’re away? Depending on the nature of your business they may be able to do the work under your name or be able to send clients straight back to you after filling in.
  • Financial insurance: Establishing a financial safety net to use in the event you can’t work can really help to ease stress if you need to take time off. While it can be difficult to do, aim to put aside revenue during productive times as a financial buffer, or consider income protection insurance. If you don’t already have this insurance through your super fund, talk to a financial advisor or business advisor to ensure you have adequate coverage for your needs.
  • Review your plan every 12 months to ensure all details and contact information is still current.

Staying well

Taking care of your physical and mental wellbeing as part of your day-to-day routine helps to minimise the need to unexpectedly take time off. Eating well, exercising, ensuring you get a good night’s sleep, taking time out from work, practising self-care, and deliberately organising regular time off will help you maintain a work-life balance. This is more cost-effective and beneficial in the long term.

Further reading

Small business Continuity Plan

A guide and template that steps through making a plan for how your business can prepare for, and continue to operate after, an incident or crisis that you did not expect

More Resources