Study explores why people come into work when they’re sick

At this time of year various bugs are rampant and it’s rare to find a colleague that isn’t sniffling and sneezing with something or other.  Whilst it’s increasingly common for organizations to require such people to go home so as not to infect their peers, a recent study reminds us that things are not always so straightforward.

The traditional line of thought is that people who come into the office whilst unwell are selfishly putting colleagues at risk, but the study suggests that people are much more likely to come in when they believe their absence will create difficulties for colleagues.

To come in or stay home

The study found that people were 30% more likely to come into work when unwell if their work would fall onto the shoulders of a colleague.

The findings add nuance to previous analysis of the area, which tended to suggest that our desire to come into work was driven primarily by a strong desire for the income, whether through the wages themselves or a lack of sick pay.  The desire to support our colleagues however adds another layer to things.

The study found that people working in a team had a strong urge to support their team mates, which manifested itself in a level of cooperation that led to lower absence rates than when people worked on their own.

“Economists have traditionally modelled human behaviour by assuming people maximise their personal satisfaction subject to some form of constraint, whether it be money or otherwise,” the authors say. “They tended to say relatively little about the effect of relationships between family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues,” they continue.

Of course, such interactions are rather difficult to map, hence perhaps why studies have chosen to omit them, but the authors believe their work fills that gap, and reminds us that people coming into work when sick may be doing so out of altruistic motives rather than selfish ones.

Perhaps the best approach to take in such circumstances is to ensure that people have all the tools they need to be able to work from home so that they can continue to contribute whilst not infecting their colleagues.  It seems a little odd that this needs saying in 2017, but perhaps it’s a drum that needs beating still.

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