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February 2014
IBI Research · Peer Reviewed

Employees Working While Ill Can Have Long-Term Productivity Consequences

IBI researchers Dr. Kim Jinnett and Dr. Brian Gifford published a study in the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Read the abstract here.

When employees get ill, they typically miss work. However, research by the Integrated Benefits Institute shows that about one in six ill employees work their normal routines instead of taking leave or adjusting their schedules. These sick employees may have a negative impact on workforce productivity beyond what they could accomplish on the job while ill.

Employees say they work through illness in large part because they have too much work, cannot afford the income loss or fear negative consequences. On the other hand, when ill employees have the flexibility to adjust their work routine, they are more likely to work a different schedule or at a different location rather than miss work entirely, according to the research conducted by Brian Gifford, PhD, IBI Senior Research Associate, and Kimberly Jinnett, PhD, IBI Research Director.

“Given what is known about the workplace as a locus of both health and illness, and about the relationship between job demands and health outcomes, the finding that many workers feel that their job responsibilities preclude them from taking time off to restore health or recover from illness is troubling,” the authors write. “Short-term productivity gains of working through illness could imply a trade-off in long-term productivity costs if worsened health degrades workers’ day-to-day job performance, precipitates serious illness requiring longer-duration disability leave or leads to early exit from the work force.”

The authors examined data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey to ascertain employees’ responses to illness and how different leave policies, such as paid leave and flexibility to adjust work routines, contribute to their decisions.

The data included 5,547 employees who had a full- or part-time job, and worked or were temporarily absent from their job during the seven days preceding the survey. About 7% of employees reported illness during this period.
According to the authors’ research:

  • Employees’ response to illness: About 70% of employees who experienced illness missed work entirely or in part, 13% adjusted their work schedules, and 17% worked their normal routines while ill rather than taking leave or adjusting their schedules. About 61% of workers who were absent missed only some days; approximately 8% missed an entire week.
  • Sick leave: Almost half of employees who missed work used sick leave for their absence (45.6%); about one third were unpaid (31.7%). The remainder of employees used other leave benefits such as paid time off (PTO), personal leave or vacation. Among employees eligible for paid sick leave, about 57% used their sick leave benefits and 14% were unpaid.
  • Working while sick: Reasons why the 17% of ill employees worked a normal routine rather than taking leave or adjusting their work schedules included: having too much work (23.2%), could not afford the income loss (20.8%), fear of negative consequences (9.4%), wanted to save leave (9.0%), leave was denied (5.3%), not eligible for leave (2.9%) and other reasons.
  • Time lost due to absence: Absent workers missed an average of 12.6 hours or roughly 32% of their usual work week (which averaged about 41.4 hours).
  • Differences by gender: Female employees were about twice as likely as male employees to report illness (9.5% compared with 4.6%).
  • Differences by health status: Employees who reported their health as “excellent” were only about 39% as likely to report an illness as those who reported their health as “good.” Employees with “fair” or “poor” health were 14% more likely to report illness than were employees with “good” health.

“The results strongly suggest that whether or not employees are eligible for paid leave, having the flexibility to adjust their work routines when ill can reduce the likelihood of missing work,” the authors write.

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