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SCIENCE: Why Do We Go to Work When We’re Sick?

There is a real, dumb reason we go into work when we're sick, and it's super scientific. We broke down analysis by the researchers at the University of East Anglia to help us understand this madness.

There is a real, dumb reason we go into work when we’re sick, and it’s super scientific. We broke down analysis by the researchers at the University of East Anglia to help us understand this madness.


(Photo Credit: Leonid Mamchenkov/Flickr)

A light fever has set in. You’re working through a cold sweat, and your head feels like it may or may not explode. You have a lot to do today, and getting sick is the last thing you need on your plate. Do you go home and retreat into bed with Netflix and a bowl of tomato soup? Or do you work through it and tough it out for the sake of a deadline?

Do You Know What You're Worth?

Spoiler alert: most of us tend to stick through it and tough it out, despite feeling 110 percent awful. But why? The explanation is actually quite scientific. Researchers at the University of East Anglia, in a recent analysis of 61 studies involving 175,960 participants, have uncovered the primary reasons why we still choose to go to work when we are sick.

Huh? What? Exactly. You’ve probably never heard of this term before, but you can blame it for inspiring you to go to work that day you had the stomach flu. Researchers at UEA say that presenteeism stems from ill health, stress, and raised motivation. This may have employees going that “extra mile,” which not only makes them work more intensely, but even head into work when they are sick, according to the study.

What Can We Blame for Presenteeism?
Is it your fault? Nope. Is it the organizational pressure that keeps you in the office when you should be in bed? It might be. According to the analysis, the strongest link to presenteeism is the severity of the organizational policies used to monitor or reduce staff absences, a.k.a. your company time off policy. For example, if your company has a unlimited PTO policy, presenteeism is likely less common where you work.

A Word of Caution
Previous research on presenteeism showed that it has both positive and negative effects on employee productivity and overall welfare. However, presenteeism is linked with an increase in errors, productivity loss, and lower performance. Lead author, Dr. Mariella Miraglia, explains: 

Working while ill can compound the effects of the initial illness and result in negative job attitudes and withdrawal from work. However, the possible negative consequences of being absent can prompt employees to show up ill or to return to work when not totally recovered. Organizations may want to carefully review attendance policies for features which could decrease absence at the cost of increased presenteeism.

When we become ill in the workplace, organizational policies and social pressure can motivate us to tough it out and work through fevers, contagious coughs, and stomach aches. But, it shouldn’t. It’s important anytime you’re feeling ill to stay home so as to not get your co-workers sick. Although you will lose face time in the office temporarily, your co-workers will appreciate you for not sharing your germs. At the end of the day, deadlines can wait – your health is forever.

Miraglia concludes with some insights on what employers can do to help, saying, “organizations may benefit from well-designed jobs that limit the level of demands to which employees are exposed to every day, for example, by reducing excessive workload, time pressure and overtime work, as well as making sure they have the resources they need.”

I don’t know about you guys, but I like the way Miraglia thinks.

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Do you feel pressure to go to work when you’re sick? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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