“Presenteeism:” Working while ill may cause health complications

stressToo much work may be hazardous to your health – literally. Recent research by Professor Kevin Dew of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand examined the phenomenon of “presenteeism,” or pressure to work while ill. His paper, published today in the British Medical Journal, found people who habitually work sick are likely to develop serious health complications. These include musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, depression and serious coronary events.

Dew wrote presenteeism is most common in occupations that involve caring and teaching, but can also be found in workplaces where employees have little back-up or frequently find themselves snowed under with assignments. Limited sick leave, low job satisfaction and fear of dismissal also play a role in fostering presenteeism, he said.

Presenteeism may also be a health risk for expats relocating for work, especially those moving to countries with reputations for workaholism. A recent survey by Ipsos Global and Reuters found Australia, South Africa and Japan to be the “most workaholic countries” in the world. Just under half of Australians and South Africans use their allotted sick days each year. In Japan the figure is a startling 33%. Additionally, some expats cope with the difficulty of adjusting to their new lives by working long hours.

As always, one key to staying healthy (mentally as well as physically) is reaching a reasonable life-work balance. For expat employees that means using sick days as needed and avoiding excessive overtime – even if local co-workers do just the opposite. Employers, Dew wrote

can help by discouraging over-commitment to work and encouraging workers to allow sufficient recovery time from sickness. Workers with poor health should receive special attention to avoid presenteeism because they are likely to have fewer resources to call on to resist its negative impact.

“Managers and occupational physicians need to be alert to the findings,” Dew concluded. “Even though presenteeism may have some positive effects in the short term , it is likely to be negative in the long term.”

The full text of Dew’s paper is available on the British Medical Journal‘s website.