Workers more likely to call in sick after stressful day

Tension with co-workers, boss leads to illness: Study
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/06/2011

A few years ago, workplace consultant Kathryn Cubin was helping an organization through a merger when one of its senior managers began experiencing disrespectful behaviour from her new boss. One evening, the boss called the senior manager and said she needed to do a presentation the next day for a high-profile client, without providing her with sufficient information, time or resources. The next day, the senior manager called in sick.

“She was already suffering from stressful symptoms and that was it — she couldn’t take it anymore,” said Cubin, owner of Employee First, an absence-management service provider in Calgary.

Stressful work situations increase the odds of employees calling in sick, according to a Swedish study.

Employees are more likely to call in sick after an unpleasant experience with a boss or colleague or before a workday that is expected to be stressful.

“This is yet another argument to create and uphold good workplace relationships because it seems as if the psychosocial work environment does not only affect our health but the way we act when ill,” said Hanna Hultin, a PhD student at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and co-author of the study.

Researchers studied about 550 cases of sick leave among Swedish employees in six workplaces in the manufacturing, health-care and financial sectors, from 2005 to 2007.

If an employee has an unpleasant encounter with her superior, she is 3.36 times more likely to call in sick in the following two workdays, found the study. Insufficient appreciation, conflict, criticism and being disregarded or brushed aside by a superior were cited as examples of unpleasant encounters.

“It’s not uncommon to have tensions with other people at work, even more so from supervisors because they have power over you,” said Sandra Robinson, professor of organizational behaviour at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “It’s a huge source of stress if people feel they are treated unfairly or in an uncivil manner.”

Employees are 4.68 times more likely to call in sick in the days following a problem with a colleague, found the study. Respondents cited insufficient appreciation and conflict as the primary sources of problems with a colleague.

“Not all of us have the same aptitude for managing conflict and there’s a lot of bullying and harassment in some organizations that can have a terribly stressful effect on employees,” said Cubin. “Some of them go through so much that they just can’t take it anymore.”

And if they anticipated a particularly stressful workday — such as one with more responsibilities, tight deadlines or less staff — respondents were 2.27 times more likely to call in sick that day, according to “Work-related psychosocial events as triggers of sick leave,” published in BMC Public Health.

“When you expect a stressful work situation, it might be harder to work with ill health, so (calling in sick) is sort of a coping mechanism behind it,” said Hultin. “Or it might be, ‘If I go to work and experience this stressful situation, it will strain my body even more and prolong the illness.’”

Employees are not necessarily faking their illnesses, said the study, with almost all study participants reporting illnesses such as colds, influenzas, infections or headaches in relation to sick leave spells, said Hultin.

“The phenomenon of sick leave is multi-causal,” said Hultin. “People who experience illness don’t take sick leave for many reasons but having problems in workplace relationships might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, so the combination might make out the sufficient cause.”

Stress can manifest itself both mentally and physically, and too much of it can be a trigger for taking sick days, said Cubin. When individuals are in stressful situations, it can lead to a “genuine illness” such as headaches, muscle aches, heart problems, anxiety or insomnia, she said.

There are many things employers can do to help reduce stress in the workplace. A supportive culture — where employees feel valued and empowered, have some autonomy and are encouraged to speak up if they are feeling stressed — is an essential prevention measure, said Cubin.

Offering a flexible work environment, where possible, is also key, she said. At Matrix Solutions, an environmental and engineering consulting firm based in Calgary, the 300 employees across Western Canada are given a target number of hours for the year and they can make them up however they want, as long as clients’ needs are being met, said Cubin, who is also a senior project manager for HR at the company.

“Organizations need to wake up and understand and value people’s commitment to the organization but also understand and value their commitment to family and personal lives,” she said. “A good balance encourages a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle that manages and reduces stress.”

Good management practices can also reduce workplace stress, said Robinson, and it’s important for managers to make decisions fairly, outline expectations clearly and communicate honestly with employees.

Employers should focus on managing stress in the workplace because it can have a significant, negative impact on an organization, said Robinson.

“Whether it’s in terms of absenteeism or turnover, even in other ways like interpersonal tension among employees or reduced performance, there’s lots of consequences for companies,” she said. “It’s both common and costly so, for those two reasons, companies need to focus on it.”

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