You wake up with a pounding headache and a throat that feels like you’re swallowing glass. What do you do? Well, If you’re like the majority of UK workers, you simply get up and struggle in to work.

A recent study claims that 86% of the UK’s workforce defy the lure of the duvet and common sense when they’re ill but what’s the situation in the healthcare sector? Surely people who deal with illness know the undisputed benefits of calling in sick? After all, working when ill – presenteeism – is shown to cause not only reduced productivity and efficiency but also increased risks of accidents and mistakes. Not to mention the fact that you are potentially infecting your work colleagues, reducing morale by having your ‘woe-is-me’ expression and you’ll actually take longer to recover. When you look at it this way, staying at home is the only option. Or is it?

An NHS survey shows that 53% of staff work when they shouldn’t. Understaffing in the NHS is not a new story – the Nursing Standard (2018) reports that 75% of nurses are routinely too busy to take a break and even worse, 59% regularly fail to even have time to have a drink during their shifts. So is this the problem? We realise only too well the impact that our absence would have on our already-stretched and stressed colleagues? That’s definitely part of it – being a carer means that you tend to take on that role with everyone – patients and colleagues – but when questioned, only 19% said that they felt pressured to work by their colleagues. Indeed, they’re more likely to be insisting that you go home – that’s carers for you!

So is it the bosses? Well, I personally experienced this. As a cardiac scrub nurse, I was aware that it was not an easy role to replace. People need training and experience and so if I was off-sick, there was a very limited pool of nurses to step in. Operation cancellations are obviously not an option, so agency nurses would be called and with that skill set, it wasn’t cheap. But short-term concerns about the budget are just that – short-term. Presenteeism costs £15.1 billion compared to the £8.4 billion associated with absenteeism, according to one study that looked at the financial impact of staff sickness due to mental health issues. Line managers need to be reminded to look further ahead and support staff in taking time off. To prevent the rising tide of presenteeism, managers should send sick staff members home and be a role model by calling in sick themselves. After all, no-one is invincible.

But maybe the problem lies closer to home. Of the staff that do work when ill, a massive 92% said they were putting themselves under pressure to do so. If your identity is that of a carer, it’s difficult to make the shift to being cared for. So if you take time off and find that you have a guilty conscience or feel like you’re letting people down, you could be on the slippery slope of presenteeism.

But how do you put the brakes on this slide? Prioritisation is the answer. Healthcare work can often be personally demanding and undoubtedly stressful and yes, you do have a responsibility to others – that’s why you love your job – but you have a responsibility to yourself too, so put yourself first and take a couple of days off while you recover from that cold. It means that you can get back to full-strength much faster, which benefits everyone in the long-term.