Data shows rates of absenteeism in the first two weeks of May were well above the seasonally-adjusted average
A “perfect storm” of circulating winter illnesses and a lack of immunity due to the population not being exposed to the flu in recent years is driving a surge in Australian workers calling in sick, with absenteeism rates in May about 50% above the long-term average.
Across Australia, rates of personal leave in the first two weeks of May were 49% above the seasonally adjusted baseline, according to small and medium business payroll data from MYOB provided to Guardian Australia.
While the May absentee rates were well above average and were trending upwards, they are well below the amount of sick leave recorded when the Omicron variant of Covid first peaked in January and February, when Australians were taking more than double the average amount of sick days.
Western Australia, which experienced its first Covid wave well after the eastern states, is currently experiencing the highest levels of absenteeism according to the MYOB data, at 81% above the average.
Absenteeism grew from April to the first half of May in several jurisdictions, with rates 49% above the baseline in Victoria, 59% in Queensland, 70% in the Australian Capital Territory and 63% in the Northern Territory.
While it decreased in New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania, the MYOB data shows personal leave rates were still 45%, 54% and 53% above the baseline in the first half of May in those states respectively.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president, Karen Price, said anecdotally, levels of illness in the community continued to be high in the weeks since mid May, with receptionists at many clinics reporting abuse when they tell patients there is a wait time of several days for an appointment because GPs are “struggling to keep up with demand”.
Price explained there were several factors driving the soaring rates of illness across Australia going into winter.“We’ve got a larger proportion of the population who have not been exposed to viruses much in the last two years, other than Covid, of which there is still high community transmission,” she said.
“Now that we’ve opened up we’ve also got influenza which has peaked early, and we’re got limited immunity.”
Price warned that even ordinarily healthy people who have contracted the flu recently are reporting being very sick for longer than normal, consistently up to 10 days.
“It’s not that the flu is any more severe in nature than normal, the problem is that we just don’t have any cross-immunity built up because we haven’t really had a flu season in the last two years. There is just no baseline immunity.”
“Influenza can be a very serious illness for vulnerable people,” she said.
Additionally, Price said there are lots of other viruses circulating in the community, including those which cause the common cold.
Price said people should maintain hygiene and cough etiquette that became common earlier in the Covid pandemic, warning that some people who previously had Covid and knew their current illness was not coronavirus could be more lax in avoiding spreading the flu.
To avoid increasing pressure on GPs who are already under strain due to the clogged hospital and emergency system, Price said anyone needing medical advice related to cold or flu should first seek a telehealth appointment. Additionally, she called on the population to seek out flu vaccines, which are free in many jurisdictions, noting children under five and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.
“It’s quite an amazing time, it really is a perfect storm because the pandemic has rendered us more vulnerable to other things too,” Price said.