Study: How the Home Office Trend is Leading People to Work While Ill

Woman sitting on bed and working at home

Stayed at home – but can’t stop working despite being ill? Why do employees choose to do so? And what can employers do to stop them? A new study conducted by researchers from Kühne Logistics University (KLU) and WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management took a closer look at the phenomenon of “workahomeism and offers clear recommendations. As it shows, employees’ feelings of guilt play a major role.

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In the course of three studies, ca. 650 participants were surveyed and their responses concerning their decision in the case of a theoretical or actual illness were analyzed. The good news: since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, survey results indicate that employees increasingly feel guilty for going to work despite being ill. The bad news: Employees feel much less guilty for working from home despite being ill.

Twofold feelings of guilt

The findings show that the decision to work is independent of how serious the illness is. When it comes to the reasons for this behavior, according to Prisca Brosi, a Professor of Human Resource Management at KLU: “Many employees feel guilty towards the rest of their team if they ‘only’ rest at home and aren’t available to help. That’s why some of them opt to still do at least some work.” Yet these employees often overlook the consequences of their choice, as Fabiola H. Gerpott, a Professor of Leadership at WHU, adds: “When I choose to keep working instead of getting some rest, I can also feel guilt towards myself. On the one hand, these employees are often less productive due to their illness; on the other, they can sense that their choice is harmful to their own health.”

Companies should encourage reflection

What can companies do to avoid the negative impacts of sick employees working from home? As the two experts underscore, they absolutely have to avoid giving the impression that their employees are expected to be reachable even when they’re sick. As Prof. Brosi explains, “Companies should address this in advance, and make it clear that this type of behavior harms employees’ own health and doesn’t allow them to work productively. It’s not enough to request that employees stay home when they’re ill; they should also be encouraged to reflect on the negative consequences of nevertheless choosing to work.”

Publication: Prisca Brosi and Fabiola H. Gerpott (2022): Stayed at Home – But Can’t Stop Working Despite Being Ill?! Guilt as a Driver of Presenteeism at Work and at Home, Journal of Organizational Behavior

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