The Cost of Not Taking a Sick Day

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A new study looks at how presenteeism -- going to work while ill -- can be harmful to more than just the individual, and why it is that certain organizational cultures promote the practice

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Your nose is running, your throat is scratchy, and your eyes are burning. But you drag yourself out of bed, dress, and head to the office anyway feeling virtuous and sick. Once there, you proceed to share your virus with your coworkers. But at least you showed up to get the job done, right?

Wrong, according to a new study. Presenteeism -- attending work while ill -- is not always a smart choice for individuals or the organizations for which they work. It is entirely possible that a worker who is ill may be present physically, but mentally he or she might as well be home in bed.

A flu or cold virus or other illness spreading among coworkers can mean the loss of more than one employee's productivity. It can paralyze entire departments. The study found that certain organizational cultures tend to promote presenteeism, or at least discourage absenteeism.

For the study, Gary Johns, a management professor at Concordia's John Molson School of Business surveyed 444 people, asking about their job requirements, work experience, the numbers of days they had been out sick (absenteeism), and the number of days they had come to work feeling ill (presenteeism).

On average, people reported they had been presentee employees about three days in the past six months. They said they had been absent an average of only 1.8 days during the same period.

Among those most likely to work while ill were caregivers and teachers. People who worked on projects involving a team or collaboration with other groups were also likely to feel the need to drag themselves to the office. "Often, a person might feel socially obligated to attend work despite illness," said Johns in a press release, "while other employees feel organizational pressure to attend work despite medical discomfort."

That organizational pressure takes the form of companies' attitudes toward sick days, as well as workers' own sense of job security or insecurity. According to Johns, "secure employees don't fear retribution for an occasional absence because of sickness." When companies frown upon absenteeism, presenteeism goes up. It also is more likely to occur, according to this and previous studies, when employees are not permanent or if the threat of layoffs hovers in the background. On the other hand, absenteeism is more likely when unemployment is low and among unionized workers.

It's not surprising that companies overlook the downside of workers who work while ill. "Estimating the cost of absenteeism is more tangible than counting the impact of presenteeism," says Johns.

The study is published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

Image: auremar/Shutterstock.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Leslie Carr is the editor-in-chief at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow. She was formerly an editor at Random House, HarperCollins, and Prentice Hall Publishers.

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