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

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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.

sickatwork

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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?

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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.

Presenteeism
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.

Conclusion/Solution
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.

Tell Us What You Think

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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Jennifer
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Jennifer

At my workplace, we have attendance policies that are comprised of a point system. In a rolling 12 months if an employee accrues 60 points they will be terminated. An unscheduled PTO day (aka sick day) is 5 points. If you have the flu and are out for 5 days that is 25 points. If we punch in 3 minutes late we get 3 points. If my children are sick at school and the nurse calls me to pick them up, that is leaving early without 24 hours advanced notice and that is 3 points. Our HR policies make it… Read more »

Conservative
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Conservative

As a sufferer of chronic illnesses for twenty years, I have had to come to terms with either working and fighting through the pain, or staying home and getting behind in my work. I am “THE” department in a library, and have to keep the process going in order for other people to have work to do. I am fortunate in that my library pays for sick days (only so many) and we do have vacation days (only so many). In the other jobs I have held in my 50+ work career, you either worked or you didn’t get paid.… Read more »

Kimberly
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Kimberly

I believe that those who go to work sick spread ilnnesses while communiting and working. I always think it is super selfish and somewhat archaic. If you must can you order some surgical masks please? How many people’s special events and holidays have been ruined because they got the flu from Joe who wanted to make a point of being present – holding that more valuable than protecting the health of other’s. What if unbeknownst to you one of your colleague’s family members has a weakened immune system? For example, I was working at a place where an employee was… Read more »

Matthew
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Matthew

OR, maybe, just maybe, not everyone has the f****g luxury to miss any work at all, where literally missing a shift would mean you can’t make end’s meet.

Angie
Guest
Angie

I go in sick because if I don’t, I get fired. I work in fast food and I feel bad for getting others sick, but I need my job. If I tried to wear a surgical mask UI’d get yelled at and told to take it off.

Ultra
Guest
Ultra

The subject of the article is valid and great, but the writing needs a LOT of work. Presenteeism wasn’t explicitly defined (despite alluding to many people having never heard of it), the solution really wasn’t a solution (how much sway does the average employee have over HR policies?), and it wasn’t all that scientific.

Were you exercising presenteeism when you wrote it?

Melissa
Guest
Melissa

My boss makes me feel guilty and like the worst employee in the world if I’m sick. He has no regard or compassion for his employees so makes it hard on the people that need a ‘sick’ day. I try to make sure that I always have a certificate, but it’s not always possible. That’s why I do it, and I’m sure there are others out there that feel the same.

MilitaryAF
Guest
MilitaryAF

I suspect Presenteeism is an American-only phenomenon. In other countries such as Europe, where good health, well-being and happiness is important, and employees aren’t regarded as a piece of meat, probably don’t have this issue. Those countries also enjoy significantly better benefits such as 6-weeks of paid vacation, paid family-leave, more holidays and universal health-care. Only in the U.S. is it considered a badge of honor to allow your employer to work you into the grave and be proud of it.

Drew
Guest
Drew

As a student majoring in human resources I can attest that this is a fairly new concept yes, but scientific none the less. Presenteeism is the act of attending work while sick. A topic that is at times considered its opposite, absenteeism, has historically received extensive attention in the management sciences, but presenteeism has only recently found a place in the research literature. Like many people have said it is often not the desire of one to go to work sick but outside influences that make them do it. Needing the money, boss strong arms you etc. People tend also… Read more »

Conservative
Guest
Conservative

As a sufferer of chronic illnesses for twenty years, I have had to come to terms with either working and fighting through the pain, or staying home and getting behind in my work. I am “THE” department in a library, and have to keep the process going in order for other people to have work to do. I am fortunate in that my library pays for sick days (only so many) and we do have vacation days (only so many). In the other jobs I have held in my 50+ work career, you either worked or you didn’t get paid.… Read more »

Tom
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Tom

I wish I had found a place in the article where presenteeism was explicitly defined since it is a new term to a lit of us.

Erin
Guest
Erin

Depending on flu or cold. Often with a cold you are sick staying at home or you are sick at work. Either way you are sick, get paid or not get paid.
With flu, stay home. You’ll just spread it and usually on pretty heavy medication so not fit for duty. I think many people are chronic ” call in sick” when not, and people have to work OT to cover and that sucks so most tough it out not to inconvenience there co-workers and boss.

Steph
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Steph

I was a single parent with 2 kids. I believe we mostly go due to money and the pressure from companies with 0 sick days. You have to go to work to pay the bills. Some may see it as selfish but I see it as still being able to provide for yourself and children. I didn’t want to go a expose others but what is a person to do when they depend a certain income to put food and clothing on children. Government says a employer can send you home sick but has to pay you for 4 hrs,… Read more »

Lorie
Guest
Lorie

Science? There is no science about it. People go to work sick because they need their paycheck to live. Not everyone is lucky enough to have such amazing jobs with great benefits, paid sick & personal days or the ability to work from home.

Ben
Guest
Ben

Fully agree Joanne! Bring on the science please…

Joseph
Guest
Joseph

The reason is really just to make you suffer and blame yourself for it and increase your feelings of submission and subjugation, I think it’s sending a powerful message to your subconscious, that the job is more important than your own health, we have been trained well to enforce it on ourselves, though a limited number of sick days “helps” a lot also, you don’t want to take one now if you’re not sure if you’re that sick when you could be very sick on some other day when your days are up and then you’ll suffer a lot more!… Read more »

ciaran
Guest
ciaran

if your a contractor you don’t get the option to take a sick day simple as that. So where is the evidence that an employer who lets staff stay at home when they have a sniffle increases productivity, its certainly not in any work culture i have come across.

Bob S.
Guest
Bob S.

While I understand the concept of “presenteeism”, I’m not convinced it is the main reason people work through their sicknesses. I know that it is definitely not the reason I have never missed a day of scheduled work in the 40+ years I have been employed, For me, I want to keep my perfect attendance record intact … even though I do not receive a thing for it and my present employer has a generous PTO policy. I enjoy my work and the people I work with and hate not being able to practice my profession. These days with telecommuting,… Read more »

Another Joe
Guest
Another Joe

In addition to hourly workers not getting paid, in most companies any employee or manager calling in with anything short of a myocardial infarction earns you the labels of “lazy,” “weak” and “not a team player.” You go to the top of the list for layoffs and the bottom of the list for promotions.

Joe
Guest
Joe

When I was unionized I had sick days so I would stay at home. Once I was dropped to part-time status and not unionized anymore I had no benefits. The amount I was paid barely paid the bills so missing a day meant I didn’t get paid. I kept going to work to get paid to pay the bills. I figured if my employer was concerned about me or my spreading my sickness to others they could pay me to stay home and I would happily oblige them.

Joanne
Guest
Joanne

This article is not scientific. I really didn’t learn anything from it 🙁

Bart
Guest
Bart

Go to work.

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