To understand why presenteeism persists even during a pandemic, we looked at employee motivation. The significant correlations suggest that employees reported that they continue working while sick because: (1) they are worried about losing their jobs or burdening their colleagues (avoidance motivation), or (2) they believe they have to persevere, be loyal to their team schedule and their customers (approach motivation).
Notably, the correlations between presenteeism and approach motivation were similar in size in February and May data. Yet, the correlations between presenteeism and avoidance motivation was weaker in May than in February data. This suggests that employees may have good intentions of engaging in presenteeism, even during a pandemic.
How can organisations curb presenteeism? We examined the correlational evidence and found that presenteeism climate, wherein working long hours irrespective of one’s wellbeing is encouraged, is positively related to presenteeism. But, the good news is that participants who reported that their organisation had put in place measures that are designed to prevent COVID19 from spreading, such as encouraging washing hands, social distancing and disinfecting items, also reported less presenteeism.
This negative correlation suggests that people tend to stay at home when they are sick when these preventative measures are implemented. Doing so may remind employees about the seriousness of this pandemic and the need to take their own health and the wellbeing of others seriously.
These preliminary results have important implications for organisations and policymakers striving to better manage the health and well-being of their employees.
First, organisations may benefit from putting in place policies, procedures and expectations about employee sickness and health. As our preliminary results showed, such policies and measures could signal to employees that their health and wellbeing is valued and taken seriously. Organisations could reinforce these signals by providing paid sick leave and enforcing it by empowering supervisors and fellow workers to remind sick and present employees to stay at home and get well. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us all that in doing so, it is critical for not just employees’ own wellbeing, but the health of their peers.
Second, we agree it is important to drop our “soldier on” mindset and stop going to work sick, as has been recently suggested by the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy. This advice is aligned with our preliminary findings, which are suggesting that presenteeism climate, wherein taking sick leave is frowned upon and being absent from work due to a health problem is viewed as a lack of commitment to work, may contribute to presenteeism prevalence, even during a pandemic.
Organisations may be able to discourage such a culture by not rewarding working long hours. The message should be clear – working long hours is not an indicator of good performance. Good performance is such an indicator, of which staying at home while sick and protecting the health of peers is a key.
Aleksandra Luksyte is an Associate Professor and deputy Head of Department, Management and Organisations, in the UWA Business School. She is a recipient of Australian Research Council Early Career Researcher (DECRA) Fellowship. Alex research focuses on three domains: (1) presenteeism, (2) overqualification or underemployment, and (3) demographic and cultural diversity at the workplace.
Gillian Yeo is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Head of Department, Management and Organisations, in the UWA Business School. She primarily examines self-regulation at work—that is, how individuals regulate their motivation, emotions and cognitions in relation to learning, performance and wellbeing. The outcomes of her research have informed training, performance management, and occupational health practices in a variety of work settings.