New Research Looks at Why People Go to Work Sick

November 10th 2015

Thor Benson

You know the feeling: You wake up, sniffling and coughing. It's time to go to work. You lie in bed and debate whether you should go in.

There might be financial factors to consider. You think about how calling in sick will affect coworkers. You worry that staying home will hurt your place in the company. You decide to go to work after all.

You're not alone. Research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology documents a phenomenon called "presenteeism": people going to work even though they are sick.

We already know that about half of food service workers go to work sick, even though that might endanger restaurant-goers. They do so for financial reasons.

The new study looks at employees from a variety of industries. Researchers from the University of East Anglia in England and Concordia University in Canada analyzed 61 completed studies that included 175,960 participants. They found that people go to work sick for a variety of reasons:

  • High workloads
  • Understaffing
  • Financial burdens
  • Pressure from employers

Some people simply enjoy their careers and prefer to go to work rather than calling in sick, the researchers found. (As an aside, people who work in supportive work environments were found to be happier at work and healthier overall.)

It's clear people don't base their decision to go to work or call in sick strictly based on how they feel, and many external factors play a role. But people who go to work sick can extend their illness and negatively affect productivity in the process, the researchers found.

There are some understandable reasons to go to work while ill, Gary Johns, a professor of management at Concordia University and a co-author of the study, told ATTN:.

"If you are not contagious, and working will not exacerbate your illness, you might consider going to work, especially if you have the opportunity to adjust your task, schedule, or output to reflect the fact that you are not entirely fit," he said. "This is a good way to illustrate your commitment to the organization and avoid work piling up when you are absent."

If you are contagious or don't feel well enough to do your job, then it's usually a bad idea to go to work.

There are several ways employers can make it easier for employees to stay home when it's truly best for them and the company, Johns said. "Certainly increased paid sick leave will help," he said. "Our research showed that people who are in financial difficulty or experience job insecurity are inclined go to work ill. In addition to paid sick days, organizations should have clear policies about presenteeism and encourage managers and employees to show good judgment in managing their attendance."

“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,” Mariella Miraglia, a co-author from the University of East Anglia, said in a statement. She said workplace wellness and health programs can also help reduce the frequency that people go to work sick.

Employees should weigh all factors when deciding to go to work, and employers need to create an environment in which opting out of work is acceptable and relatively simple.