Management & Controlling

A Lack of Responsibility Isn’t the Problem

How presenteeism can harm companies and what managers can do against it

Companies have a problem when employees come to the office sick. But why? Employees may think a few tasks can be completed regardless of feeling ill, and it may be the case that there are simply too many tasks that cannot be left unfinished. In fact, they may even believe they show a remarkable sense of duty. Similarly, managers often tolerate this “presenteeism” or even explicitly expect it. What both parties often fail to recognize is that, from an economic perspective, employees who work despite being ill are not doing their company any favors. Two new studies explore why this is the case.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, employees have become significantly more hesitant to go to the office while sick, a fact confirmed by a new study conducted by Professor Brosi and Professor Gerpott. Many employees surveyed stated that they prefer staying at home to avoid infecting their colleagues. At the same time, they feel less hesitation about working while feeling ill when they are at home, a phenomenon that the researchers coined “workahomeism.” Working from home while feeling ill seems an easy thing to do: You don’t need to make it all the way into the office, but merely to your desk at home. There are no colleagues who are disturbed when you have to cough, and you can make yourself a tea at any time. The boundaries between private life and business are not clearly defined when we work remotely, and it can be difficult to allow yourself a proper period of rest.

Employees want to avoid feelings of guilt

Why do so many employees continue to work even when displaying clear signs of illness? Simply put, most people fear that they will feel guilty toward colleagues if they call in sick. To them, it seems a good compromise to spend a few hours working while at home. Even if this is exhausting and only prolongs the time needed to recover, employees hope that they can at least reduce feelings of guilt. Many employees maintain this position independently of the severity of their symptoms. Reality, however, tells a different story. In fact, employees still reported feeling guilty about not being able to fully contribute to the team, even after working through their illness. They then have to deal with an additional feeling of guilt over having neglected their health and ignored their own needs.

That which may start out with good intentions will be, in the end, of no advantage to the parties involved. Employees overtax their energy resources. Companies may face trouble when their employees’ level of efficiency decreases, which ultimately impaires the efficiency of the whole operation. Working through illness can even have long-term negative consequences. Employees who often work despite feeling ill and do not give their bodies time to recover risk serious health problems that can lead to an increased number of sick days later in their careers.

Am I really unwell enough to call in sick?

Against the backdrop that currently many employees can work from home, which increases the risk of presenteeism, it is important to understand what is going on in the mind of a person who shows this behavior. This person keeps asking themselves two questions: How bad are my symptoms? And how much progress am I making with my work goals? Depending on the answers to these questions, the employee assesses the situation and decides whether to continue working despite symptoms of illness. Generally, employees are less likely to call in sick on days when they feel they are making good progress with their work. By contrast, they prefer to push through the workday when they feel they are not making good progress. To them, it seems reasonable and necessary to make this sacrifice.

Working despite feeling ill also carries negative consequences for the next day

Almost everyone can relate to such experiences. Working while suffering from illness means that we are less able to concentrate, take longer to complete tasks, and are more likely to make mistakes. An equally relevant point, albeit one less obvious, is that the adverse effects of presenteeism manifest on the following day. A new study by Dr. Rivkin, Prof. Diestel, Prof. Gerpott, and Dr. Unger showed that, even on the next day, employees are still less able to fully engage in their work, and performance suffers. This is because working while feeling ill requires self-control. The affected person must use their energy to suppress their discomfort, as well as any corresponding the feelings and thoughts. This depleting effect explains why, on the following day, employees have less energy available to engage fully in their work.

In the end, what we can all take away from these findings is this: It makes sense to call in sick when you experience symptoms of illness. Employees should keep in mind that working through illness has negative consequences and will not necessarily help their employer. Therefore, there is no need to have a guilty conscience. This is something managers should continually emphasize, particularly when interacting with employees who are working from home. After all, working while experiencing symptoms of illness impairs productivity, depletes the employee’s energy, and has a negative impact on the motivation and performance on the following day.

Tips for practitioners
  • As a manager, make it clear to your employees that working through illness offers no advantages to the company. To contradict a potential false sense of duty, be proactive and make sure your employees are aware of the negative consequences that working through illness can have on their health.
  • Do not ignore employees who are working while sick. What is very important here is that you serve as a role model and call in sick when you’re not feeling well. Otherwise, you’re only casting doubt upon your own message. Lead by example!
  • Remember that employees, when faced with illness, often make the decision to continue working when they feel they haven’t accomplished enough. Therefore, it is counterproductive to place further pressure on employees who are currently unable to work to their fullest capacity.
  • If working while feeling sick is unavoidable, try to focus on simple, more comfortable tasks. That way, your energy levels will not be as affected and the negative effects on the following day are reduced.
Literature references and methodology

To find out whether feelings of guilt cause employees to work sick in the home office, approximately 650 participants were surveyed. Across three studies, the researchers analyzed the decisions made in case of an assumed or actual illness.

Brosi, Prisca/ Gerpott, Fabiola H. (2022): Stayed at Home - But Can't Stop Working Despite Being Ill?! Guilt as a Driver of Presenteeism at Work and at Home, Journal of Organizational Behavior https://doi.org/10.1002/job.2601

In another study, a similar target group was interviewed to investigate why employees decide to work sick in the first place and what the consequences of this decision are. In this case, the fact that the respondents were working from home was due to the pandemic. The focus was on the psychological processes of the individual. For 15 consecutive days, approximately 130 participants filled out questionnaires at lunchtime and in the evening. These surveys asked about their current health conditions, work progress, and work engagement (i.e., work commitment).

Rivkin, Vladislav/Diestel, Stefan/Gerpott, Fabiola H./Unter, Dana (2022): Should I Stay or Should I Go? The Role of Daily Presenteeism as an Adaptive Response to Perform at Work Despite Somatic Complaints for Employee Effectiveness, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000322

Authors

Professor Dr. Prisca Brosi

Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, Kühne Logistics University

Dr. Wladislaw Rivkin

Associate Professor in Organizational Behavior, Trinity Business School, Trinity College

Professor Stefan Diestel

Chair of work, organizational, and business psychology, Schumpeter School of Business and Economics at Bergische Universität Wuppertal

Dr. Dana Unger

Associate Professor in Work and Organizational Psychology, UiT The Arctic University of Norway

Professor Fabiola Gerpott

Fabiola Gerpott is an expert for leadership, diversity management and organizational behavior at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. She is committed to ensuring that diversity is valued more highly by managers and employees alike. Her research focus is on age and gender diversity in leadership positions.

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