When the morning alarm carves us out of our slumber, restoring the previous night’s raspy throat and foggy head, we have a decision to make: get up and go, or call in sick. What happens next is influenced by workplace norms about whether absence is commonplace or exceptional, a current pulling us towards the office or letting us settle back into bed. But new research in Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processing from a Dutch-Canadian team, led by Lieke ten Brummelhuis, suggests this isn’t automatic: we’re more likely to fight against the tide when we care about our team, and when we know our absence will cost them.
The researchers asked 299 participants recruited online – American adults with an average of 20 years job experience and who worked in a team of three or more members – to imagine either that over the last three months someone had been absent from their team almost every week, although the understaffing had finally ended, or that their full team had been present throughout that period. Next they were to imagine that they were feeling a little out of sorts, although not actually ill, and were considering calling in sick to their workplace. The participants’ simply had to say whether they would choose to call in sick. Finally, they completed a survey about their attitude toward their real-life team.
As expected, participants asked to imagine high absence in their team were more likely to decide to call in sick, but still a majority did not. Ten Brummelhuis’ team looked at the 19 per cent who did take a sickie, finding that they considered their relationship with their real-life team to be more transactional in nature – for instance by affirming statements like “I watch very carefully what I get from my team, relative to what I contribute.” Meanwhile, the 81 per cent who chose not to call in sick were significantly more likely to sign off on statements like “My relationship with my team members is based on mutual trust.” This fits with the researchers’ thesis, based on social exchange theory, that although absence typically begets absence, this may be neutralised when the team has developed a trusting relationship rather than a tit-for-tat attitude to hassles.
The researchers next looked to deepen their understanding using actual worker absenteeism rates from a three-month period. They recruited hundreds of participants from Dutch companies in industries including health, facilities and commercial services, comprising 97 teams with an average of 8 members. Again, a given team member was more likely to take more sick days when their co-worker absence was greater. But this association was weaker in more cohesive, tight-knit teams, supplementing the finding from the online experiment. In addition, participants were less influenced by high rates of others’ absence when work within their team was highly interconnected and interdependent – when your day is made very difficult by the absence of a team-mate, you’re more aware of that cost and less prepared to inflict it on others without good reason.
Absence costs around 200 billion annually in the US economy, so understanding the factors that contribute to inessential absence matters to organisations. Tackling an absence culture where employees “repay co-workers” absence by calling in sick means looking at the nature of work performed by a team, to amplify and clarify its interconnected nature. And it means supporting high-quality relations within a team, in which a hard week in an understaffed office isn’t earning a credit to spend later, but a matter of duty, because someone you care about needs that recovery time.
ten Brummelhuis, L., Johns, G., Lyons, B., & ter Hoeven, C. (2016). Why and when do employees imitate the absenteeism of co-workers? Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 134, 16-30 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2016.04.001
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