The number is stark and startling: 51 percent of the 1,200 food workers polled by the Center for Research and Public Policy say they “always or frequently” go to work sick. Part of the annual “Mind of the Food Worker” study commissioned by Alchemy Systems, the poll consulted workers across the U.S. and Canada who work across all aspects of the industry, ranging from food service workers in restaurants and cafeterias, processing workers in farms and industrial facilities, and food sales workers in grocery stores.
While that figure of 51 percent is striking, Laura Dunn Nelson, vice president of business development for Alchemy Systems, warns against the instinct to draw many conclusions from it.
“It’s impossible to extrapolate the findings to direct impact on customer health,” she tells Food Quality and Safety, “because there is no direct connection that can be quantified. However, it is interesting that when the survey asked leaders to estimate the number of their employees that go to work sick, they only estimated 18.4 percent.”
Nelson, who has 25 years of food-safety experience and works with retailers and manufacturers in implementing Global Food Safety Initiative certification, says the figure of 18.4 percent was the result of a gap in communication possibly caused by ineffective onboarding processes. The misunderstanding could also be due to poor communication of options available to workers when they are sick, she adds.
“For example, some companies present their sick policy to employees during their initial onboarding training and this topic is never revisited or discussed,” explains Nelson. “Based on our experience and research, single event training will not drive 100 percent compliance behaviors.”
The primary reason employees cited for not taking time off work was their fear of letting their coworkers down, and Nelson underlines this is actually indicative of a healthy organizational characteristic—a culture of teamwork—gone awry.
“The data suggests that there is potential to better explain the ‘why’ [of the safety imperative of not working sick],” says Nelson. “Better communicating that working when sick can harm their fellow team members helps to better inform their choices.”
The other factor that workers cited as a reason for coming in while sick was that they could not afford to miss work. Nelson acknowledges that this was a more difficult factor to tackle. However, she called upon an equally impressive number from the study, that 90 percent of food workers polled across the various industries said they felt personally responsible for customer health.
For that reason, she says, workers’ fears of lost wages from missed work could be balanced against the fears of placing customer health and safety at risk.
In order to strengthen such a balance, Nelson suggests training and coaching to connect employees’ choices about working sick to their feelings of personal responsibility for customer wellbeing.
Staniforth is a freelance reporter based in Montreal. Reach him at [email protected].