Companies need to adopt a strategic approach to sickness absence in drivers

There are several illnesses – and even cures – that have a proven negative impact on driving – and fleet managers are urged to tackle what’s known as ‘sickness presenteeism’ 

The amount of research that suggests people who feel ill will still go to work is worrying. Sickness presenteeism is defined as situations where people continue to work while unwell and not functioning to their full capacity. Reasons cited included having too much work and pressure from their boss. In one survey across 28 US cities, as many as 90% of survey respondents admitted to going into the office with cold or flu symptoms.

There’s a clear correlation with driving. Back in 2012, drivers with cold symptoms were given tests on a simulator. CBS News reported that they displayed slower reaction times, braked more suddenly and frequently, were less aware of surrounding traffic and drove more erratically than healthy drivers. Having a cold resulted in a 50% drop in driving ability – the equivalent of drinking eight whiskies.

A second study, published in the BMJ, showed that those with a cold were slower at responding to unexpected events and spent a greater percentage of time driving with a gap of less than two seconds from the vehicle in front. Sneezing has also been a factor in road accidents, with varying penalties given to the drivers. We know that drivers can struggle to drive in a straight line when a sneeze is coming, while sneezing, headaches, runny noses and painful sinuses have been shown to reduce concentration and awareness.

Cure as bad as the disease

Even those who take over-the-counter medicines to relieve aches and pains are at risk. CBSN Pittsburgh quotes Dr Thomas Campbell of the Allegheny General Hospital emergency department, who says: “Many [such medicines] contain diphenhydramine, which makes you a little sleepy. Also, if someone’s had a bad night’s sleep because of a cold, they’re certainly not as aware and awake as they would be normally.” 

The report continues: “No one has tracked how many accidents are related to cold and flu. But with 500 million colds a year, and 90% of Americans driving every day, about 1 million people could be driving with a cold on any given day.”

Besides cold and flu-like symptoms, other illnesses to avoid driving with include eye infections, as these can cause blurred vision, and ear infections as they can lead to dizziness and disorientation. Medication for anxiety can also result in excessive tiredness and the CDC reports that as many as 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be caused by drowsy drivers in the US alone.

At least one law firm has made it clear that “driving while sick is distracted driving no matter how you look at it”. Eberst Law continues: “When you sneeze, you close your eyes and may lose control of your vehicle. Not only does driving while sick put you at risk for an accident, but it also puts pedestrianscyclists and other drivers on the road at risk of injury.”

An overlooked risk factor

With the Delta variant of Covid-19 proving particularly transmissible in many countries, it brings the problem of driving while ill under the spotlight once more. Much of the debate on driving during the pandemic has centred on hygiene factors to prevent its spread, rather than its impact on driving ability. Toronto Public Health in Canada, for example, urges drivers to wash hands and use sanitiser frequently and suggests that employers should provide all drivers “with the appropriate cleaning products/disinfectant wipes for their vehicles”.

However, its most common symptoms, according to the World Health Organization, are fever, dry cough and fatigue. Others include a sore throat, headache and muscle or joint pain – all of which are consistent with the effects of a cold. More focus, therefore, should be given to reminding drivers to stay at home if feeling unwell – and having business contingencies in place if and when staff are unable to work. Employers should also ensure that they don’t put pressure on drivers to come in if they feel unwell. 

Keeping a close eye on any statistics related to erratic driving is also advised. This is because with so many cases being mild and similar to the effects of a cold or flu, many drivers won’t be aware they have Covid (or be aware of the impact of ill health on their driving) and may feel well enough to work. 

However, there is clearly a risk that this will affect their driving and, taking a longer-term view, there is also evidence that sickness presenteeism is a risk factor for future poor health, which could have an impact on company performance.

It feels like an important factor is being overlooked and employers should be using every tool in their armoury to look after their drivers, as they may be putting their own lives – and those of others – at risk by continuing to work if unwell.

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