“Sister Evans should really have been off duty, but managed to keep going….” (New Zealand nurse, January 1919)
“I have turned up for work even when my head has been thumping with a headache….” (New Zealand nurse, 2015)
“…even though I’m extremely tired and mentally exhausted, I still come to work.” (South Australian nurse, 2015)
Sickness presenteeism (SP) refers to workers attending work despite being unwell. As the quotes above indicate, there is evidence from historical records and research suggesting that nurses have practised SP since at least 1919 and that this continues today. Research identifies that nurses have some of the highest rates of SP of all occupational groups. The consequences of nurses practising SP are found in their poorer health and that of their patients. This latter consequence includes the risk of contagion; increased drug errors, rates of falls and other adverse events; and an increased risk of essential nursing care being omitted.
This presentation suggests that SP is a learned behaviour that begins at the point of nursing education. In addition, the pressure to complete clinical hours and to make a good impression promotes the practice in nursing students and in new graduate nurses undertaking NETP programmes. In light of the consequences of SP, this presentation argues that it is time to address and transform nurses’ SP attitudes and to promote nurses’ health. One way to achieve this is through education, and the first questions must be, ‘are educators aware of SP, and should we be concerned?’
Key words: sickness presenteeism; nursing culture; socialization.