Yes [Cough], I’m Working Today

With ailments from colds to COVID-19, three quarters of employees admit to coming to work while sick.

The employee woke up with a headache and stuffy nose but decided to soldier on: He had a busy day ahead at the office. He swallowed ibuprofen and a decongestant, and headed into the office, figuring that his team wouldn’t notice. He wasn’t that sick.

Sneezing and coughing at work are back—and so, apparently, is hiding illnesses. After two pandemic years in which merely coughing in public was verboten, some 75% of workers now admit to concealing an illness, according to a study of 4,100 adults by the University of Michigan. That includes a shocking 61% of healthcare employees, who went so far as to incorrectly report symptoms on mandatory screening apps.

Experts say that coming into the office while sick is far from ideal for both employees and firms. “They’re limping along and extending their illness, while most likely doing subpar work,” says human-resources expert Ron Porter, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “Soon, you’ll have a whole group performing below par.”

The behavior represents a major shift from the wellness-first ideology that permeated the pandemic, when ill employees stayed home and coworkers picked up the slack for them, sometimes for weeks on end. Experts say that coming to work while sick is part of what they call “presenteeism,” and that it’s particularly common in two groups: hourly or gig workers who don’t get paid if they don’t work; and professionals in various industries who have clients, customers, or patients counting on them. The tight job market may also be a factor: Unemployment, now at 3.5%, continues to tick upward. 

Mounting trust issues may be playing a role as well: A recent study found that one-fourth of managers think that workers who call in sick are faking it; one-third have now started asking such workers to bring in a doctor’s note. 

But experts say that empathy may be the better route to take. If employers can establish trust, they may be able to identify what’s driving some employees to come to work when they’re sick. Business psychologist James Bywater, senior client partner at Korn Ferry, cites some of the most common reasons for this behavior: the fear of losing a job or missing out on career opportunities; a workplace culture that implicitly encourages working, except in cases of severe illness; and individual financial needs. Bywater suggests developing clear cultural norms that encourage people to take enough time off to recover and avoid spreading illness to others. “It would help here to invest in training for managers to support their staff in making these decisions,” says Bywater. 

That said, some managers may hesitate to send home effective, well-liked employees who arrive with a cold—especially if they are hourly workers. Doing this can be particularly difficult in a healthy corporate environment in which no one wants to tattle on fellow employees. “Supervisors can’t look the other way,” says Porter. “They need to send that person home.” He encourages managers to focus on the end goal: getting the employee back to health as soon as possible. “Forget about a day or two of work,” he says. 

Companies can take steps that may prevent these behaviors, say experts, by—for instance—offering unlimited sick-day policies and allowing remote or open-air work during illnesses. Firms can also train employees to do team members’ jobs, thereby removing pressure on individual employees to show up. “Companies with flexible working policies are unlikely to have these issues,” says Christian Hasenoehrl, senior client partner in the Consumer and Industrial practices at Korn Ferry.


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