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Most People Feel Obliged To Go To Work Sick, Study Finds, As Calls Increase For 'Pandemic Leave'

Most workers, including those on the frontline, still turn up to work when they're unwell, new research has found, contradicting strong advice from health authorities during the pandemic. 

As authorities map out Australia's road to recovery from COVID-19 and re-open the economy, workers have been instructed to stay home if they are unwell.

Last week, Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told Aussies they can no longer be "heroes" and soldier on at work, especially with flu-like symptoms.

"Everybody stays home when they’re unwell, no matter how mild your cold or your cough, stay home when you’re unwell, and please get a COVID test," Murphy said.

"No more heroics of coming to work with a cough and a cold and a sore throat. That’s off the agenda for every Australian for the foreseeable future. Please."

But according to new research, most workers feel inclined to do the opposite.

A peer-reviewed survey of over 500 workers from 49 countries found almost all of them would work with minor flu symptoms such as a cold, sore throat, sneezing, runny nose or mild cough.

Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy has urged Aussies to stay home if they're sick. Image: AAP

About half of the respondents were healthcare workers, and 99 percent of them admitted to going to work. About 58 percent said they would continue to work with an influenza-like illness, but only 26.9 percent said they would work through major symptoms such as a fever.

Australian Infectious Diseases physician and co-author Professor Peter Collignon said the findings were particularly concerning during the pandemic, and that "too many people" go to work when they're sick.

“It was bad enough before COVID-19 when it was just influenza and other respiratory viruses," Collignon said.

"But, now we have coronavirus it is more important than ever to not go to work when you are unwell."

Sick woman buying in supermarket and coughing into elbow during COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, published in PLOS One journal on Thursday, found the highest rates of "sickness presenteeism" were among the care, welfare, and education sectors.

It singled out healthcare workers as a particular concern due to the potentially serious public health impact and risk of virus transmission.

“Doctors and nurses might feel they need to go out of their way to help others, but it is best for everyone if they do not present to work if unwell,” Collignon said.

National

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But the researchers noted sick leave policy must be addressed.

In response to calls to stay home when sick, experts and unions this week pointed out many workers do not have paid sick leave.

ACTU Secretary Sally McManus has called for "paid pandemic leave".

There is parliamentary support for greater pandemic leave.

On Tuesday,  the Greens introduced a bill to the Senate for 14 days of paid leave for "all workers" including part-time, casual, and the gig economy.

Alison Pennington

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