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COVID-19: The new economics of our daily lives
This is a global pandemic: Why do employees still come to work sick?
Aleksandra Luksyte and Gillian Yeo
Despite the serious public health crisis we find ourselves in, people still tend to show up for work sick. Aleksandra Luksyte and Gillian Yeo examine what motivates employees to do so, how this behaviour has changed over the course of the pandemic, and what organisations and employers can learn from this in order to promote a healthy and safe work environment in the long run.
On Wednesday 26 February 2000 a man arrived in Tasmania and experienced cold-like symptoms the following day. He developed further symptoms the next week and contacted the public health hotline on the Friday. He was tested for COVID-19 and was advised to self-isolate until the test results came back, but he ignored the advice and attended work the next day. This man was the second confirmed case of COVID-19 in Tasmania.
The man described above engaged in presenteeism – wherein people turn up to work despite their illness, injuries and other medical conditions. There are different reasons why people engage in presenteeism: some are worried about their job security, others do so because they are passionate about their jobs.
Turning up to work sick can harm co-workers and the organisation. For example, our own research showed that fear of contagion explains why employees become disengaged and demotivated when their co-workers (particularly those of the same sex and race) turn up to work sick.
However, the potential consequences of presenteeism are even more dire during a global pandemic—during this time, it represents a public health and safety hazard. Yet, surprisingly, as our opening example shows, even during a global pandemic of a highly contagious disease, presenteeism occurs.
Why do people come to work even though they are sick, and might be sick with a potentially deadly virus that may infect others?
To answer this question, we have started to track presenteeism behaviour across the various stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are particularly interested in examining organisational factors that may influence employees’ presenteeism. Some organisations can inadvertently create a presenteeism climate by not having in place sick leave policies or by putting pressure (even implicitly) on employees to work long hours irrespective of their wellbeing.
Can organisations reduce presenteeism, particularly during a pandemic, if their leaders promote healthy habits and role model health-conscious behaviours such as staying at home when one is sick? To answer these questions, we have started to track working adults in Australia and the USA throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 12 March. In early February 2020, with only several confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia and the USA, we collected data on presenteeism and organisational norms and policies around sickness attendance from 600 working adults from both countries, serendipitously providing us with a baseline measure of presenteeism. We aim to follow-up with the same participants several more times during various stages of this pandemic.
We are currently collecting the second wave of data. We followed up with the same 600 employees in early May—the peak of this pandemic globally and in the USA particularly. We now discuss some preliminary results from the two data collection points: early February (beginning of the pandemic) and early May (peak of the pandemic). These results are based on the 118 employees to date who have responded to our surveys in both February and May.
Our preliminary results, based on descriptive and correlational analyses, suggest that employees reported engaging in fewer presenteeism behaviours as the pandemic worsened. Using a 5-point scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree), their agreements to statements about their presenteeism behaviours, such as “Although I felt sick, I still forced myself to continue to work” or “I have continued to work when it might have been better to take sick leave” was a mean of 3.64 in early February.
We have asked the same people to respond to those questions in relation to the time since early February until now, and the mean rating has dropped to 2.38. Despite this seemingly encouraging news about presenteeism reduction during the COVID-19 pandemic, we found that presenteeism persists.
Our data are showing that, on average, people reported that they worked even though they were sick or not feeling well 4.25 days since early February. Perhaps not surprising, engaging in presenteeism was positively correlated with workplace anxiety, suggesting that working while sick is a stressful work experience.
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