The Hidden Costs of Working When Sick

10 Oct 10:00 by Kai Theriault


Mariella Miraglia and Gail Kinman review the evidence on presenteeism.

Have you ever struggled into work when you felt sick enough to stay at home? If so, you are one of the 43 per cent of European workers (according to a 2012 Eurofound survey) who have engaged in presenteeism. People work while sick for several reasons, such as excessive job demands, a sense of obligation to their employers or service users, and fear of job loss. Some may choose to work while sick because they enjoy their job too much to take time off. Although presenteeism is commonplace, scholarly interest in the phenomenon only emerged in the late 1990s but it is now increasing rapidly.

Back in 2010 Gary Johns traced the development of interest in presenteeism and highlighted the many ways in which it has been defined. Overall, two themes emerge: first, presenteeism is seen as the practice of attending work in spite of illness or injury; second, it is used to describe the productivity loss resulting from employees working while unwell and unable to perform to their full capacity. This perspective tends to be used in the field of occupational medicine, where attempts are made to quantify the productivity loss of presenteeism related to illness in general, or to specific medical conditions, such as coronary heart disease, arthritis and depression. Although it is vital to raise awareness of the financial costs of presenteeism, the validity of defining the concept in this way is questionable, as it confounds the cause (i.e. the behaviour of working when sick) with the effect (i.e. impaired productivity). This does not allow researchers to identify the underlying reasons why people work while sick and the wider implications of this phenomenon.

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