The story of Michael Jordan recording 38 points, seven rebounds and three steals to lift the Chicago Bulls to victory in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals all while battling flu-like symptoms is legend. Media dubbed it the “Flu Game” and would go on to laud his gutsy playoff performance for the next 24 years. Show up to work with flu-like symptoms these days though and you’re not likely to get the same reaction as MJ.
As businesses reopen and employees return to the office following the pandemic shutdowns, a new study from the University of Central Florida recently published in Journal of Applied Psychology, examines how working with sick coworkers affects employees’ treatment of them compared to healthier colleagues.
“Understanding the link between ‘coworker presenteeism’—showing up to work when you’re sick or not feeling well — and mistreatment may be more pressing now than ever,” says UCF management professor Shannon Taylor, “but it is not specific to the COVID-19 outbreak.”
In two studies conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic in face-to-face settings, UCF researchers Taylor and Troy Pounds, a visiting lecturer of integrated business, found that employees were less likely to mistreat a sick coworker if they reacted with empathy, or “coworker-orientation.” But if the employee was stressed out by a heavy workload, they were more likely to react with self-concern, or self-interest, and avoid their sick colleague or treat them rudely.
“The pandemic has brought out the best and worst in people,” Taylor says, “and understanding how employees respond to a sick coworker at work can have a significant impact on a company’s culture and its bottom line.”
While employees may engage in presenteeism, or working while sick, for admirable reasons (e.g., strong work ethic, financial need), evidence suggests it deteriorates their health and results in productivity costs larger than absenteeism alone. That behavior can be difficult to change in organizations where employees who never miss work, even for a sick day, are lauded and even rewarded for their dedication and work ethic.
“Managers should encourage sick employees to stay home to help them recover more quickly, protect the health of their colleagues and avoid the risk of abuse at work,” Taylor says,
Taylor and Pounds’ study surveyed employees and asked them to recall details about incidents when a coworker displayed symptoms consistent with COVID-19, such as coughing, fever, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Study participants represented various occupations, including cashiers, customer service representatives, teachers, nurses and managers, who had coworkers come to work with COVID-19-like symptoms.
“There’s never a good time to be sick,” Taylor says. “But if you have a pile of work to get done when a coworker shows up in the office and appears to be ill, your reaction might be to worry about how it will impact you. For example, you might worry about your own health or taking on their work instead of showing concern for your colleague.”
Taylor’s research focuses on workplace mistreatment, examining rude, abusive, and unethical behaviors of employees and leaders. Pounds is pursuing his doctorate of business administration at the University of Florida.