The Hidden Costs of Working While Sick or In Pain Are Found by Study from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

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Working while sick or in pain affects the energy and job performance of employees, according to a new study by UNC Kenan-Flagler researchers.

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Everyone has worked while sick or in pain, but how does that affect job performance?

Both the energy and job performance of workers are affected, according to research by Michael Christian, Noah Eisenkraft and Chaitali Kapadia at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School.

The researchers tracked two samples of office workers over time and examined the effects of both chronic pain and momentary pain during the workday.

Their study, "Dynamic Associations among Somatic Complaints, Human Energy, and Discretionary Behaviors: Experiences with Pain Fluctuations at Work," is forthcoming in Administrative Science Quarterly but can be read online here.

“Our research shows that workers’ physical well-being has implications for organizations far beyond absenteeism and attrition,” said Christian.

According to the researchers:

  •     Pain both depletes and redirects employees’ allocation of energy.
  •     Workers in pain are more likely to withdraw and narrow their focus to the essential parts of their job.
  •     Whether pain is caused by a chronic condition or a fleeting headache, they are less likely to help co-workers or make constructive suggestions at work.
  •     On days when pain was low, the same workers were proactive and helpful.
  •     Workers who experienced chronic pain for longer improved over time, increasing their capacity for balancing daily job demands with pain.

“Employees are often asked or feel obligated to work regardless of how bad they feel,” said Eisenkraft. “That is bad for business because it results in less engaged and less helpful employees.”

“What’s good for business is to recognize daily changes in physical health – rather than commitment – can affect performance,” said Kapadia. “They could reap long-term benefits by showing understanding to their workers.”

Business leaders who want the best performance from their employees should:

  •     Develop and implement effective treatments and symptom management strategies for chronic health conditions
  •     Change punitive sick-leave policies which could exacerbate this problem by creating conditions in which people feel obligated to work regardless of how poorly they feel
  •     Help employees replenish their energy on days when they are feeling sick, such as taking longer breaks


About the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School
Consistently ranked one of the world's best business schools, UNC Kenan-Flagler is known for its collaborative culture that stems from its core values: excellence, leadership, integrity, community and teamwork. Professors excel at both teaching and research, and demonstrate unparalleled dedication to students. Graduates are effective, principled leaders who have the technical and managerial skills to deliver results in the global business environment. UNC Kenan-Flagler offers a rich portfolio of programs and extraordinary, real-life learning experiences: Undergraduate Business (BSBA), full-time MBA, Executive MBA Programs (Evening, Weekend and global OneMBA®), online MBA@UNC, UNC-Tsinghua Dual-Degree EMBA, Master of Accounting, PhD, Executive Development, and UNC Business Essentials programs. It is home to the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.

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