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Three-quarters of workers, students surveyed admit to concealing illness around others

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Dive Brief:

  • About 75% of more than 4,100 participants in a set of 10 illness studies reviewed by University of Michigan researchers reported concealing illness in interpersonal interactions, according to a news post on the analysis released Monday. 
  • The studies included responses from online crowdsourced workers, healthcare employees and university students. In particular, 61% of healthcare workers concealed their illnesses, incorrectly used mandatory symptom screening apps or intended to conceal in the future, researchers found. 
  • Interestingly, institutional policies — like a lack of paid time off — did not seem to drive concealment decisions, researchers found. Rather, people reported achievement-oriented and socially-oriented motivators, such as wanting to complete a work project or attend an event.

Dive Insight:

Working through illness was common before the pandemic and remains common, studies show. A pre-COVID survey found that as much as 90% of the workforce came to work with cold or flu symptoms, and a report from 2022 found that rather than reinforce the importance of the sick day, the rise in remote work caused by COVID-19 resulted in it being used even less. 

In addition to wanting to complete work — a motivator found by University of Michigan researchers, as well as others — employees may be affected by an apparent stigma against using sick time. Resume Builder recently revealed that some managers readily admitted to encouraging sick employees to come into the office and even to “sick shaming” them. Many managers also expressed suspicion that employees who used sick days weren’t actually ill, perhaps contributing to workers’ reluctance to use such time. 

University of Michigan researchers focused on perceived benefits to the individual, however. “Disease concealment appears to be a widely prevalent behavior by which concealers trade off risks to others in favor of their own social goals, creating potentially important public health consequences,” Wilson Merrell, a psychology doctoral student and lead author in the study, said in the university’s release.

As with so many other elements of workplace culture, HR professionals that want to promote health in the workplace should have leaders model the desired behavior, experts have said. C-suite execs, managers and other company leaders can clearly communicate their need to take time off due to illness, they suggested, signaling to colleagues that sickness happens — and big projects can wait a few days.

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