Preventing “Presenteeism”

Stay home if you are experiencing flu symptoms

Richard Barraza, a new Office Technician at California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) headquarters in Sacramento, was feeling achy and slow but he got out of bed on a brisk late December morning  and got ready for work anyway.  Once he got to the office, he felt a fever taking hold.   His throat was sore, he had very little energy.  Soon, he felt chills, and developed a cough. His supervisor sent him home immediately upon noticing the symptoms.  Barraza had come down with the flu and was contagious.

Staying home from work had seemed counter-intuitive to Richard, who had only been in his new position for a few weeks. “I had just started working and I didn’t want to be absent,” Barraza recalled.

Like many other conscientious members of the CDCR staff, he had always felt absenteeism was to be avoided.  But when it comes to flu, experts say that the opposite phenomenon can also be a problem.  “Presenteeism ” – the idea that you must come to work regardless of how you feel, can put those around you at risk- especially in close quarters like office buildings or correctional institutions.

Dr. Janet Mohle-Boetani, the Chief of Public Health for the California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) said seasonal influenza and the H1N1 flu virus are most commonly brought into institutions by staff members who travel in and out of the general community every day.

Dr. Mohle-Boetani said achy joints and muscles and fever are the main indicators that someone has contracted the flu and not just a common cold. Dr. Mohle-Boetani says the “essential method of preventing morbidity and death” from influenza among our staff and inmate population, is for staff to stay home if they develop symptoms such as:

• Joint aches or muscles pain

• Malaise, (a feeling of weakness and extreme fatigue)

• Scratchy or sore throat

• Fever or chills

• Coughing

Although news stories of serious and even fatal influenza cases are commonplace out in the general community, so far Dr. Mohle-Boetani says CDCR is containing the isolated outbreaks of flu in California correctional institutions very well. Right now, there are eight institutions with small outbreaks of fewer than 20 flu cases.

Those outbreaks are to be expected given that there is widespread influenza activity statewide. “Our staff is doing a good job of controlling the spread once it is introduced into an institution,” she said.

But she advises that measures to control outbreaks will be futile if they are not accompanied with common sense and an awareness that CDCR staff must help stop the virus from being carried into the institutions from outside the prison gates.

“State workers have paid annual leave and sick leave, so there shouldn’t be a barrier to staying home if you think you’re contagious,” she said.

Presenteeism is often practiced by conscientious staff who mean well, but its effects can be counter-productive if it causes widespread absenteeism among your colleagues a few days later.