Why working when ill is bad for you and your employer

Academic says managers should openly discourage working when ill due to its knock-on effects

Research suggests working when ill will negatively affect your work performance the following day. Photograph: iStock

You wake up feeling rotten. The desire to stay in bed is overwhelming but because there’s work to be done, you force yourself to get up and get on with it. Your dedication to duty might win you brownie points for being a martyr but, according to new research from Trinity College, working when ill does you and your employer no favours.

The problem is not so much the day in question. It’s the day after, according to Prof Wlad Rivkin, who says that, “while it may seem like a good idea to work despite ill health to deliver on work goals, research shows that this has a knock-on effect on workers’ performance the next day”.

The reason why is because working when you’re unwell drains mental energy as it requires greater effort to concentrate and this depletion isn’t recovered overnight. Rivkin can’t put a figure on how much productivity suffers by the next day, but one of the reasons it does is because people have less capacity to engage.

Rivkin is associate professor of organisational behaviour at Trinity’s business school and was the lead researcher on the study, Should I Stay or Should I Go? which was published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology in March.

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The study uses the descriptor “presenteeism” to describe the practice of showing up for work when sick, which is not the interpretation most people are familiar with. It’s more commonly used to describe a culture where people feel they have to be first in and last out even when the workload doesn’t justify it.

The Covid version of the phenomenon is always being logged on, and Rivkin says the phenomenon of people feeling they have to work through an illness rather than take time out to recover has become even more acute during the pandemic, particularly among distributed teams.

“It is crucial to tackle daily presenteeism, especially for remote workers,” he says. “For example, managers should openly discourage it by reassuring team members that if they feel unwell it is acceptable to reduce their daily work goals to tend to their health.”

If you have to work when feeling poorly, Prof Rivkin advises trying to do things that are pleasant rather than tedious and taxing. Tedium will only further drain your energy, whereas an absorbing task, where someone really gets into the “flow”, may be beneficial and therapeutic.

Presenteeism

Prof Rivkin and his team wanted to do this study to look specifically at how presenteeism manifests itself in a remote working environment day-to-day rather than taking the usual long-term approach of traditional research.

“There is an issue with the measurement of presenteeism,” he says. “If I ask someone how often have you worked despite being ill in the last six or 12 months, how accurately would they remember it? That’s why we decided to focus on the daily experience.

“What we found is that if you continue to work, even with something like a headache, it’s still too much. We call it ego depletion – a concept that comes from the self-control literature which essentially tells us that overcoming impulses, controlling emotions and engaging in unpleasant tasks all require self-control that drains our psychological resources.

“In practice, this means suppressing your health complaint,” he adds. “If, for example, a headache distracts you, it requires additional psychological energy just to keep focused on the task at hand.

“So people may think it’s a good idea to continue working through their illnesses and, yes, it may result in productivity or additional productivity on the same day. However, it will have an impact on the next working day. So, we would say that there is little to gain by working if you’re ill.”

Prof Rivkin is not suggesting that employees down tools for the day for something that might resolve itself quickly with a couple of paracetamol. But he is suggesting that taking the few hours needed to recover (and returning to the task later in the day if necessary) is ultimately more beneficial than doggedly working through it.

“For managers this means allowing people to adapt their daily work goals and making it clear to them that it’s not always necessary to complete every task,” Prof Rivkin says.

Allowing people the scope to prioritise what needs to be done and what can wait until they feel better is ultimately more productive. However, this requires a shift in thinking as most people have grown up in a culture where one is expected to work through minor illness.

Boundaries

“Taking the time to rest is the best approach, and this is especially important since the major blurring of the boundaries between working time and personal time with people working from home,” Prof Rivkin says.

“Of course this will require managers to change their own behaviour too by discouraging presenteeism. They need to be the role models. So if they are not feeling well, they shouldn’t turn up on Zoom looking exhausted with a runny nose. It’s natural for people to think if their supervisor is showing up like this then that’s what’s expected of them too.”

Prof Rivkin says that cutting people slack to recuperate goes to the heart of manageable workloads.

“If the workload is such that it can only be managed by working through an illness then it raises fundamental questions about job design. If a job is only manageable by not being ill, how sustainable is that?”