Changing work environment when dealing with sick coworkers

For many, the “return to work” isn’t going well. This time, however, it has nothing to do with long commutes, putting on work clothes, or the ability to walk the dog during lunch.

Recent research illustrates that as employees go back to the office, some are acting rudely toward one another. This seems strange, as most would assume that employees would enjoy reconnecting with their officemates to make up for lost time. The source of the problem is that employees are exhibiting cold and flu-like systems as temperatures begin to drop. And in turn, many of their coworkers are worried that their sniffling or coughing colleagues have COVID-19 and will get them sick.

In our study, published in the  Journal of Applied Psychology, we found evidence from two worker samples that employees are exhibiting strange behavior around their sickly colleagues. The study points out that pre-COVID-19, employees who went to work while under the weather were considered tough or dedicated workers because they were willing to gut it out and get their work done. Covering their mouth to cough or sneeze was enough. Now, in the post-COVID-19 world, this is not enough.

The findings illustrate that employees are more likely to mistreat their sick colleagues when they’re saddled with heavy workloads. This is increasingly common, as the pandemic has left many organizations understaffed and employees stretched thin.

When overburdened employees work with colleagues who appear sick, they’re more likely to keep their distance from those colleagues, limit their conversations with them, or avoid them altogether. Worse yet, these employees are more likely to be condescending and make demeaning or derogatory remarks toward their sick colleagues. So much for collaboration.

But it’s not all bad news. Some employees were genuinely worried about the well-being of their sick colleagues. But those with heavy workloads reacted with self-concern, such that they were focused on their own physical well-being. And organizations hoping to get back to the good ole days of in-office collaboration should realize it’s been tough for employees to shed their COVID-19-induced, self-protective mindsets. What should organizational decision-makers do?

Actionable steps

Organizations need to recognize that employees are going to show up to work, even when sick, out of financial necessity or due to strong organizational norms.

During the height of the pandemic, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided paid leave taken for COVID-19, however this has since expired. Moreover, unfortunately, there is no such thing as a federal paid sick leave law. As a result, as Olga Khazan wrote in The Atlantic, “Americans are some of the only workers in the Western world  who risk getting fired  if they don’t drag their sick selves into work.”

Policymakers can enact legislation to ensure that employees aren’t forced to choose between their financial demands and their health. Further, organizations could deter presenteeism (taking the form of showing up sick to work) by offering paid sick leave or instituting reasonable absence policies.

Organizations might balk at the additional costs. But paid sick leave could produce cost savings because it  stops the spread of illness. Not to mention, as this recent research suggests, doing so could reduce the costs associated with workplace mistreatment.

Although COVID-19 has been devastating, there have been a few silver linings as it relates to the future of work. Employees are demanding, and in most cases receiving, increased flexibility and mental health resources. It’s time to add another win to the ledger: Paid sick leave.

Scott Dust, PhD, is a management professor at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University, and the chief research officer at  Cloverleaf, a technology platform facilitating coaching for everyone.

Shannon Taylor, PhD, is a management professor at the University of Central Florida College of Business Administration.


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