Should I still work from home if I’m sick? We ask an expert - The Guardian

Summary

In 2021, British workers took some of the fewest sick days in the developed world, with employment experts putting this down to poor sick pay (as little as 19% of the average UK salary is covered). This may explain what has become a familiar sight in the workplace: a video call with someone who is clearly unwell. According to the government, we should all be “living with Covid”. But should we be working with it, too? I asked Alison Collins, an academic whose research explores sickness and presenteeism.

Is it possible that the reason Brits have such low rates of absence from sickness is because – plot twist! – we’re super healthy?

In 2021, British workers took some of the fewest sick days in the developed world, with employment experts putting this down to poor sick pay (as little as 19% of the average UK salary is covered). This may explain what has become a familiar sight in the workplace: a video call with someone who is clearly unwell. According to the government, we should all be “living with Covid”. But should we be working with it, too? I asked Alison Collins, an academic whose research explores sickness and presenteeism.

Is it possible that the reason Brits have such low rates of absence from sickness is because – plot twist! – we’re super healthy?

Maybe. Though it could also be that people are taking less time off because they can work from home while ill.

Which would be bad, right?

Let’s take a step back. If you wake up feeling unwell, you make a decision about whether to go into work. Maybe your company doesn’t pay sick leave, or you’ve got so much work that it’ll pile up. Or you just want to work. These are what we call attendance demands. When I’ve recently interviewed people, they’ve weighed up those reasons, and decided to work from home if feeling unwell. So it’s not on their sick record, and the organisation knows you’re doing less but are glad to get some work. So it’s win-win.

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But surely in the long run the employee is just making themselves sicker?

Depends. If people have chronic conditions and the organisation can be flexible, it helps those people stay in work when they wake up under the weather. We do know that going into work while sick has negative consequences. In longitudinal studies, they’ll get the same workers and test them at two or three points in time. And if people have gone to work while sick, they may be at an increased risk of sickness absence in the future: so they are deferring their sickness absence. There’s also evidence around mental health. One study found that sickness presenteeism could increase the risk of depression among people who were not depressed. The issue is that we have lots of research on working from home, and lots on sickness presenteeism in workplaces, but we don’t yet have research into the impact of sickness presenteeism while working from home, because this situation is new. I reckon we’ll start seeing that next year.

So I have to wait before jumping to any conclusions? No fun! Also I’m worried about a culture developing where you can’t just be sick in bed.

Yes, I have seen – anecdotally, so I don’t know how widespread this is – people saying there is an expectation to do Zoom meetings with Covid. For some people, Covid is terrible while others can work through it. All illnesses can hit in different ways. It’s about managers and organisations working with people to produce a fairer, supportive workforce.

See, that concerns me, because while some companies do the right thing, there are so many that won’t.

Yes. I mean, people have told me about going to work with ridiculously serious illnesses. I’ve been shocked.

Oh really? Like what?

I interviewed a guy who went to work the day after a heart attack, despite having pains and not feeling well. He only worked for a short while, because he ended up in hospital.

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Should I still work from home if I’m sick? We ask an expert - The Guardian
Photo Credit: The Guardian

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