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When a nurse reports to work, but isn't really "there"

Have you ever forced yourself to go to work, even though you were ill? Most of us have done this at least once in our lives. There is a fancy word for this practice: presenteeism.

Presenteeism is defined as the phenomenon of "attending work while ill or in spite of feeling physically and/or cognitively unable to fully engage in normal day-to-day work activities".  Presenteeism can result in lack of attention, absent-mindedness, lack of motivation, and slow response time.

Presenteeism among nurses appears to be a widespread phenomenon. The practice has real and negative effects. It can endanger patients by increasing the likelihood of nursing errors. And presenteeism negatively affects productivity, thus increasing health care costs.

In this blog post, we will look at the effect the presenteeism has on nurses and their health, and provide some pointers for nurses who suffer from work-related injuries and illnesses.

Safety and health issues facing nurses

One study that has been widely referenced in the literature is Nurses' Presenteeism and Its Effects on Self-Reported Quality of Care and Costs. It sampled 2,500 nurses in North Carolina who scored at least 1 on the standard 10-point scale of presenteeism. The study found that the leading causes of presenteeism in nurses were musculoskeletal pain and depression. Among the respondents to the study, 71 % suffered some type of musculoskeletal injury and 18% suffered depression.

Susan Letvak, one of the authors of the study, has also prepared an informative slide show on presenteeism among nurses. She notes that findings in both the U.S. and abroad have revealed some startling facts about nurses and musculoskeletal pain:

  • Over a twelve-month period, the prevalence of low back pain in nurses ranged from 45% to 76%.
  • The prevalence of neck pain was 28% to 60%.
  • 35% of nurses suffered shoulder pain.
  • 22% of nurses suffered knee pain.
  • Over their lifetimes, 85% of nurses suffer some type of musculoskeletal injury.

Other safety risks to nurses include needle and sharps injuries and accidental exposure to radiation, chemicals, and infectious diseases.

Presenteeism increases the prevalence of these risk factors. The more often a nurse goes to work while feeling pain or being ill, the more likely the nurse will suffer a new injury or aggravate an existing injury.

What to do if you suffer pain or are ill

Nurses are dedicated professionals who don't want to let their co-workers and patients down. But nurses who go to work while ill or suffering pain are doing no favors for their co-workers, patients, or themselves.

Here are some suggestions for nurses who regularly go to work, but aren't really "there" because of a medical condition or depression:

  • Don't allow a pre-existing condition to endanger the health of your patients or yourself.
  • If you are suffering work-related pain in your back, neck, shoulders, or knees, see a doctor.
  • If you are suffering depression, seek help from a mental health professional. Your employer or local nurses association may be able to direct you to resources that can help.

Remember that you may be eligible for workers' compensation benefits if the medical condition or illness that is causing your presenteeism is work-related. An attorney can review your situation and discuss your legal options.

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