How Are Employees Treated When They Show Up to Work Sick?

sick employee at work
Topic(s): Health & Safety, wellness
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2021)
Article: Are You Sick? Understanding the Effects of Coworker Presenteeism on Workplace Mistreatment
Authors: S.G. Taylor, M.M. Butts, M.S. Cole, T. Pounds
Reviewed by: Josie Anker

Presenteeism—showing up to work while sick—has always been a concern to organizations, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. While prior research has established the high costs of presenteeism to organizations, little is known about how presenteeism can affect how employees are viewed and treated by coworkers. 

For example, when a sick colleague shows up to work, people might be more likely to notice and appreciate a coworker’s dedication to the organization and act compassionately toward that person in response. On the other hand, people may view an employee’s presenteeism as a harmful act because a contagious worker puts the health of coworkers at risk. Under these circumstances, people might not treat the sick person so favorably. 


The researchers (Taylor et al., 2021) conducted two studies in which they surveyed employees who worked in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, the results of both studies show that sick employees generally received decreased mistreatment from coworkers (less avoidance and uncivil behaviors directed towards them). This is because coworkers were generally focused on concern for the sick person, especially in light of the person’s dedication. However, in situations where employees had higher workloads, sick employees received increased mistreatment from coworkers. Under these more “stressed” circumstances, coworkers shifted to caring more about their own self-interests, and noticed the danger posed by the sick colleague.


The researchers suggest several practical applications of these findings. First, they suggest that organizations should offer paid sick leave or more flexible absence policies in order to facilitate employee recovery and reduce costs associated with presenteeism and mistreatment. Additionally, they suggest that managers be aware of how employee workloads can influence the treatment of sick coworkers. Since the pandemic has led to many employees being overburdened with work, managers should emphasize that the current high workload is temporary.

Taylor, S. G., Butts, M. M., Cole, M. S., & Pounds, T. (2021). Are you sick? Understanding the effects of coworker presenteeism on workplace mistreatment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(9), 1299–1313.