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Hidden costs of working while sick uncovered

Man sick at work

Everyone has worked while sick or in pain, but how does that affect job performance?

Both the energy and job performance of workers are affected, according to research co-authored by Michael Christian and Chaitali Kapadia (PhD ’17) of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

The researchers tracked two samples of office workers over time and examined the effects of both chronic pain and momentary pain during the workday.

Their study “Dynamic Associations among Somatic Complaints, Human Energy, and Discretionary Behaviors: Experiences with Pain Fluctuations at Work” in Administrative Science Quarterly can be read here.

“Our research shows that workers’ physical well-being has implications for organizations far beyond absenteeism and attrition,” said Christian.

According to the researchers:

  • Pain both depletes and redirects employees’ allocation of energy.
  • Workers in pain are more likely to withdraw and narrow their focus to the essential parts of their job.
  • Whether pain is caused by a chronic condition or a fleeting headache, they are less likely to help co-workers or make constructive suggestions at work.
  • On days when pain was low, the same workers were proactive and helpful.
  • Workers who experienced chronic pain for longer improved over time, increasing their capacity for balancing daily job demands with pain.

Employees are often asked or feel obligated to work regardless of how bad they feel, which isn’t good for business because the result is employees who are less engaged and less helpful, the researchers found.

“What’s good for business is to recognize daily changes in physical health – rather than commitment – can affect performance,” said Kapadia, now a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “They could reap long-term benefits by showing understanding to their workers.”

Business leaders who want the best performance from their employees should:

  • Develop and implement effective treatments and symptom management strategies for chronic health conditions
  • Change punitive sick-leave policies which could exacerbate this problem by creating conditions in which people feel obligated to work regardless of how poorly they feel
  • Help employees replenish their energy on days when they are feeling sick, such as taking longer breaks