The Working Wounded

Going to work when feeling sick seems ill advised. It’s hard to believe that people will do their best work when sick, that working will help the healing process, or that coworkers want to share the pain. But the evidence says it happens a lot.

There is reason to believe that decisions to go to work when sick reflect something besides logic. Perhaps they reflect an attitude that the best way to deal with any illness is to ignore it with hopes that it will simply give up and go away.

Or they may reflect a conviction of indispensability: the business simply can’t operate without me.

Or they may reflect dedication to one’s colleagues: they would be stressed by extra work demands when short-staffed.

Responses to a recent survey we conducted suggest a different driver for going to work sick: fear.

The Survey Results

The number of days people reported attending work when ill was correlated with attitudes and perspectives on work.

More days attending work when ill meant:

  • Less work engagement
  • Less commitment
  • More exhaustion
  • More cynicism

So, attending when sick does not reflect dedication, but quite the opposite.

So, where does fear enter the equation?

More days attending work when ill also meant:

  • More negative ratings of their supervisory relationship
  • More supervisor incivility
  • More coworker incivility
  • More bullying from supervisors and coworkers

The more days people attended sick, the worse were their working relationships.

The correlations don’t indicate whether attending work when sick damages your working relationships or whether having poor working relationships drives employees to attend work against their best interests.

It does convey a strong message that this behavior is contrary to a happy, productive, and fulfilling worklife.

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