Bob Costas is right: Going to work sick is a terrible idea

February 11

After spending multiple days battling an eye infection and hosting NBC coverage of the Olympics, veteran sportscaster Bob Costas is throwing in the towel. Via our colleague Cindy Boren:

Bob Costas, NBC’s perennial Olympics host, will step aside from the network’s prime-time telecasts for the first time since 1988 on Tuesday night because of an eye infection that shocked viewers during the Opening Ceremony and has grown progressively worse.

Matt Lauer will replace Costas, who now appears to be having a problem with both eyes. Costas announced that he was ending his Ripken-like streak, which began in Seoul, on the “Today” show, telling Lauer that the infection, believed to be pink eye, is “even worse than when you saw me this morning, Sochi time. So, reluctantly, I was trying to throw a complete game here, but I think we’re going to have to go to the bullpen. I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but you’re Mariano Rivera, at least tonight.”

Ending a 26-year streak is no doubt difficult. But fear not, Bob Costas, you did the right thing! People turning up to work sick is actually a vexing problem for employers that could, by some estimates, cost them as much as $150 billion a year.

"Presenteeism" is the term researchers have come up with to describe workers turning up to work when they're sick. Unsurprisingly, these workers tend to be less productive than their healthy co-workers and might make their colleagues sick in the process. There's no standard for measuring how much productivity, exactly, is lost to sick workers on the job, but a number of studies have ballparked it to be between 20 and 60 percent of a given company's health-care costs, according to the Harvard Business Review.

People who turn up to work with contagious diseases can be particularly problematic for companies. If Costas's pink eye happens to be the bacterial version and you happen to be one of his producers, you might want to think about running in the other direction (or at least washing your hands. A lot.). Bacterial pink eye is quite contagious!



And as workers get sicker -- or, more specifically, as Bob Costas's eye infection spreads from one eye to two -- their ability to work drops dramatically. One study involving 630 call center representatives in Illinois found that the length of each call fell by 7 percent among workers who experienced seasonal allergies when ragweed pollen levels were highest.

As to why people go to work when they're sick, it's pretty much what you'd expect. One large-scale study of 11,270 working people in Denmark found that people who described themselves as "over-committed" to work were mostly likely to turn up sick. Given that Costas has hosted the Olympics for 26 years straight, its fair to guess he might fall into this category. Level of pay, however, did not show any association between those more or less likely to contribute to presenteeism.

In the United States particularly, a lack of paid sick days can also be a factor. While most other countries guarantee a certain amount of sick leave, one recent study found that 38 percent of American workers do not have that type of benefit. This is likely not a problem for Costas as he lives in New York City, which has a law requiring all companies with 20 or more employees to offer paid sick leave.

So, congratulations to you, Mr. Costas, on your bold stand against presenteeism -- and we hope your pink eye gets better very soon.

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