OHS Canada Magazine

Report: workers with job insecurity, stress tend to come to work while ill

Avatar photo

November 24, 2015
By Jeff Cottrill

Health & Safety Human Resources Occupational Hygiene Health and Wellness illness montreal occupational health and safety presenteeism productivity Quebec

Collaborative study examines the common factors in presenteeism

(Canadian OH&S News) — Montreal’s Concordia University has collaborated with the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, England on a recent report dealing with “presenteeism”, or the phenomenon of workers who attend work but have difficulty contributing in terms of productivity.

Published on the website of the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology on Nov. 9, “Going to Work Ill: A Meta-Analysis of the Correlates of Presenteeism and a Dual-Path Model” compiled data from 61 studies of presenteeism and associated factors worldwide. The report found that job insecurity, high work demand and stress are among the most common reasons why people go to work when they are ill.

“There are a number of causes and correlates of this behaviour,” said study co-author Gary Johns, Ph.D., a management professor at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business. “Organizations that have extremely strict absence polices, essentially, if you can use the term, ‘force’ workers to show up when they’re ill. That could be no-paid sick leave or low-paid sick leave, or various kinds of trigger points that build additional punishment.” While such policies may reduce absenteeism, they do so at the expense of presenteeism, he said.

Dr. Johns added that job insecurity is another common factor, as today’s economy is rife with impermanent jobs and contract work. “The more people feel insecure about their job, the less inclined they are to take a day off sick,” he explained. “Attendance is one measure of how they might get more job security or go from part-time to full-time.”

People with financial difficulties are also more likely to go to work while ill, the report found. But Dr. Johns and his co-author, Dr. Mariella Miraglia from UEA’s Norwich Business School, found no correlation between presenteeism and lower pay scales.


The study also noted more positive reasons why workers may attend work while sick. “People who are more committed to the organization, people who are more engaged with their work, people who are more satisfied with their jobs, these people are also more likely to report elevated presenteeism.”

Among the potential consequences of ill people attending work are reduced productivity, the spread of contagious diseases and safety issues due to inattention. Dr. Johns cited a past study that showed that pharmacists were more likely to commit errors when exhibiting presenteeism.

One of the problems of dealing with presenteeism is that it’s often hidden. “Absenteeism, we actually know it’s happening. You’re there or you’re not,” said Dr. Johns. “We don’t know exactly what the physical condition of our colleagues are, and so it requires a little more finesse.” But employers could begin by recognizing that the concept exists and devising policies involving it.

“We need also to empower first-line managers to kind of be aware of this phenomenon and empower them to have some voice about talking with employees about this,” said Dr. Johns. “If somebody has some lower back pain, somebody has a migraine or whatever, if we actually know about this, we can often accommodate this in certain ways. Some employees who don’t normally work from home might be able to work from home for a day when they’re exhibiting symptoms.”

“Going to Work Ill” can be accessed online for US$11.95 at http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/ocp0000015.


Stories continue below