- Applied Institute for Research in Economics
Feeling ill? Well, staying at home would seem to be the sensible course of action. Yet for many, going to work while sick has become the norm, even a necessity in the face of the pressures placed on us by the organisations which employ us.
In many cases, illness is no longer seen as a valid reason for not working; rather, it is considered to be something that people must put up with and get over. Sick days are for wimps.
Yet, working while ill – or “presenteeism” – adds to the costs of organisations. It impairs the performance of workers and results in lower productivity. Organisations may actually pay a high price in terms of lost productivity by allowing workers to work while they are ill.
The costs to employees are also high. By staying at work, they may be compounding their own ill health. In the extreme, they could even be working themselves to death.
A vicious cycle
The causes of presenteeism are varied. On the one hand, it stems from fear, the fear that staying off work, even when ill, will be interpreted as a lack of commitment. This induces people to attend work when they shouldn’t.
The latest research suggests that high job demands, stress and job insecurity are key to explaining involuntary presenteeism. Lack of adequate sick pay and other financial difficulties all encourage employees to work while ill.
The role of fear in driving presenteeism was suggested in the recent case of temporary agency workers at a Derbyshire site of retailer, Sports Direct. Reports alleged that some workers there were “too scared” to call in sick for fear of losing their jobs, although Sports Direct has said that agency staff should not fear losing their jobs over sick days and that it aims to provide safe conditions for all.
But while some workers feel pressured to work when ill, others choose to. These workers wish to demonstrate passion and commitment for their jobs even when they’re feeling under the weather.
The irony here is that attendance at work may be one of the causes of poor health. Stress related to a high workload, lack of autonomy, and job insecurity may lead to illness that then requires recovery time away from work. But by fearing the consequences of staying away from work, workers may be sucked back to it, even though doing so is likely to compound their illness.
Even among those who are devoted to their jobs, ill health may be caused by continual and uninterrupted work attendance. If devotion to work leads to long hours, including unpaid overtime, then even the most committed worker may confront problems of burnout and physical ill health. In such cases, staying away from work may be a good thing, especially if it allows time for recovery and creative distraction via other, non-work activities.
Whatever the reasons for presenteeism – negative or positive – its effects on our health are likely to be the same. Working while ill leads to greater sickness. By taking time off work, in short, you can protect yourself against even worse health – and possibly even premature death – in the future.
Managers have a role to play here, too. Under pressure to achieve short-term results, they may be tempted to turn a blind eye to presenteeism. But by doing so, they risk creating higher costs for themselves and their companies. They would be better to seek solutions to the causes of ill health – high workloads, low job security, and work-related stress – than managing sick workers in a functional way.
Kicking the work habit
There needs to be greater honesty and openness in the workplace and an acceptance that work pressures cause illnesses that require time off. This means challenging the belief that work is the great cure-all for life’s ills and more value being placed on having a life beyond work. It requires us to reappraise work and to value the worth of the time we have away from it.
Presenteeism is a symptom of a society which allows work to dominate its citizens' lives. It reflects the pressure put on people to act as model workers and to identify with work as the most important activity in life.
Work is and can be good, if organised in the right way. But it can also consume us and make us ill. Where it makes us sick, we should reject it. Presenteeism, in short, is a wake-up call for us to think differently about work and to explore how we might live our lives with less work.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.