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Being Absent When You’re Always Present

Working from home has a lot of benefits – no commuting, working in tracksuit pants, sitting on a beanbag, doing the washing while taking a break…

Keyboard and mouse (work) with somebody reaching for a medical mask (sick at work)
Photo courtesy of Patrick Hardin

But beyond the guilt, there are other problems. Importantly, what about when you’re sick? If you’re working in an office, a shop, a cafe, a park, a construction site or anywhere that you have to arrive at, there’s a clear demarcation between when you’re sick and when you’re well. When you’re well, you “go” to work – you’re there, in the (healthy) flesh. When you’re sick, you “stay” at home and you’re absent from work. But when you’re working from home there is no “going” or “staying” – how can you be absent if you’re always present?


In organisational psychology and organisational behaviour we call this problem ‘presenteeism’. It’s when you go to work even though you’re not completely well. We’ve all done it. You get a cold or a backache and you know you probably shouldn’t go to work, but you soldier on. Even though you’d rather be at home in bed, you go to work because you think either a) somebody or something is counting on *you* to be there, b) you’d be a wuss staying at home just because of a little cold, or backache, or whatever it is, c) you need to go because your job or your pay is at risk, or d) you just love going to work and don’t want to miss out.

On the one hand, presenteeism can help you stay on top of your work or make you feel better about other aspects of your life but only if your job is relatively flexible and the tasks are within your reduced capacity. More generally, presenteeism is usually bad for us. Recent reviews have shown that both health and productivity worsens over time, particularly when your boss also comes to work when he or she is sick. Interestingly, there is a greater societal expectation for men to go to work when they’re sick than there is for women. And, although I don’t have any evidence for this, I’m guessing that it also fits the Australian view of sportspeople who play despite illness. Think of, for those who remember, Dean Jones vomiting in the extreme heat of an Indian mid-summer cricket pitch, asking to retire after reaching a century and being told by his captain, Alan Border, that if Jones couldn’t handle it he’d “get a Queenslander out here” (because of this pressure Dean Jones stayed on – presenteeism – and got 210 runs, lost 8kgs that day, and had lifelong problems with heat tolerance).

As someone diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis 10 years ago and ME/CFS last year, I’ve learnt a lot about dealing with an urge for presenteeism. I used to work through colds and flu (selfishly not thinking of my colleagues whom I probably infected!) but on immune-suppressants, you can’t. I’m lucky – I have a ready-made excuse that I can fall back on that comes from the medical experts. It’s not me having to subjectively decide that I’m too sick to work, somebody else has decided for me. Most people aren’t that lucky. You have to decide for yourself whether you are capable of working or not. The trouble is that working from home has made that decision even more difficult. So let’s look at how you can decide.

Are you sick?

The first question is whether you are sick or not. This is the easy one. If you feel sick or hurt, then you probably are. Despite the rants on social media, most people want to do the right thing, and very few people will pretend (to themselves) that they are sick. You’re not malingering, you’re not lazy. If you feel like rubbish then there’s probably something not right going on.

Are you too sick to go to work?

This used to be easy. If you couldn’t drive, walk to the bus or train stop, or ride your bike then you obviously couldn’t go to work. Now that going to work involves turning your computer on, this question is no longer relevant for us. As long as you can look at your screen, you’re okay to “go to work”.

Another way we used to be able to decide whether we should go to work or not was how contagious we were. If you were coughing and sneezing (or for those with young children, rubbing your conjunctivitis eyes), it was easy – you stayed home to protect your colleagues. But again, that’s not relevant now as our colleagues are protected via Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Are you too sick to work?

So now we get to the crux of the matter. There’s no easy choices any more. But I’m going to break this question down into three more…

1. Are you capable of working?

If your head is full with cold or you can’t concentrate because of pain, then you aren’t capable of working. Just because you can turn your computer on, it doesn’t mean you’re capable of completing the tasks to your normal level! You might be capable of doing some easier tasks but don’t expect that to automatically translate to being capable of doing all your tasks.

2. Will working make your health or performance worse in the long run?

It’s the old tortoise-and-the-hare scenario. Taking things slowly now means that you achieve more in the long run; if you run too fast now, then you’ll crash and take longer to recover. You all know what I’m talking about, even if you try to forget it when you’ve got a deadline or are feeling pressured to work when you’re sick. Sometimes, at the end of an illness, it’s okay to push through because you’re on the road to recovery anyway. But, as the research shows, you’re often better off taking time away from work when you’re sick.

3. Why do you want to work even though you’re feeling sick?

This question will hopefully help you to come to a solution for your presenteeism. Like any good psychologist, you need to keep asking, “why?”. If you’re thinking about working when you’re sick because of deadlines, then take a realistic look at them and see which are hard, which are soft, and who can help with those that can’t be moved. If you want to work when you’re sick because you’re worried about what others will think, then maybe it’s time to consider possible perfectionism – check your assumptions. If you need to work when you’re sick because of your organisation’s assumptions, then maybe it’s time to talk about theirs.

Will you be absent?

If you are able to get through these questions, then hopefully your decision-making will be a lot easier. Working from home already puts strain on our sense of who we are at work and we know from the research that, even before covid-19, presenteeism was already widespread and not good for us. I hope that having these questions in black and white allows you to make the decision and see that it’s okay to be absent. Let’s not allow the pandemic and working from home make presenteeism even worse!