Work Before Wellness? Why We Sacrifice our Mental and Physical Wellness for our Jobs

workplace behaviors Aug 22, 2021

By: Shanna B. Tiayon


Throughout my career as a manager and human resources professional, I’ve seen countless examples of employees who sacrificed their wellness for their jobs.

Once, an employee had to have a triple bypass heart surgery. Within a day or two after the surgery they called their manager offering to work remotely during their recovery period!

Another time, I had to intervene when an employee received news that their father passed away, but they still came into work. They were visibly unfit to work, but decided to come in because they didn’t want to miss a deliverable!!

So as not to be the pot calling the kettle black, a few years ago my daughter was born early via an emergency C-section. One of the scariest days of my life. Thank God she was born healthy and is thriving today. Nevertheless, hours after her birth, still doped up on pain meds, I found myself in the maternity wing lobby on conference calls, continuing to work. Why? Because I felt bad that I left work affairs in disarray due to the emergency!!!

Really?! Who does that?! I do apparently and maybe you do too. But why?

Clarifying My Question

The broader question I am wrestling with, is why do employees put their jobs before their own personal physical and mental health? I’m concerned with situations of moderate to serious illness or malaise. This doesn’t include every ache, pain or sniffle. 

This question aims to understand situations where employees are knowingly unwell and choose to work instead of taking time off to take care of their health. This behavior is so prevalent in the workplace that it even has its own term in the academic literature, “presenteeism”– working even though you are not well.  

The most obvious response to why employees choose to work when ill is money. But not so fast. In all of the examples provided above, each employee (including myself) was in a full-time, exempt (salaried), corporate position with available leave at their disposal. They would have received no financial penalty for taking leave.

So what drove their (my) decision to prioritize work over health?

Corporate Culture

There's a reason why a positive response from a CEO sometime ago about his employee taking a mental health day went viral. The norm in most corporate cultures is work before wellness and the message from this CEO clearly challenged the norm.

Corporate culture is a big driver of why employees prioritize work over wellness. Think about it. What are employees typically recognized for where you work? Do the bulk of employee recognitions highlight staff who've made either a time or personal sacrifice to complete a task?

Many corporate cultures are built on employees willingly placing both their health and personal lives on the altar of corporate success. In such cultures working while ill is a badge of honor and encouraged. Take the examples given in the beginning of the article. In all of the cases there was no managerial outrage that their employee felt compelled to work while ill. The managers of these employees were either indifferent or genuinely appreciative of the effort!

Personal Beliefs

So what’s an employee to do? Well, there is no indication that there will be a massive evolution across corporate cultures, where the new cultural norm is that employees should take care of themselves first, then worry about work. Thus, employees will have to be their own heroes, chipping away at corporate culture one individual decision at a time.

One place to start is by challenging our own beliefs that, in addition to presenteeism corporate cultures, lead us to prioritize work over wellness.  Below are a few beliefs that I started with:

Belief #1: I am indispensable. A common belief by employees that compels them to work while ill is that they are indispensable. If they don’t show up for work the train will come to a screeching halt and the earth will no longer spin on its axis.  

Let me tell you, I once saw a disgruntled employee show up to work, launch a few expletives and quit on the spot. Yet, somehow their department figured out how to maintain work continuity. The reality is that while someone might be a key player, in their absence, work will continue. We’re not as indispensable as we think we are.

Belief #2: A good colleague is someone willing to take one for the team. There is a misconception that being a team player equates to self-sacrifice; a belief which can spillover into an employee’s health decisions.

Here’s a slightly dramatized illustration of how these decisions can play out and are encouraged - “Look at Tom, he’s such a great colleague, he showed up to work after his knee, hip and spine surgery to help us do something completely unimportant”. Why is Tom lauded for potentially jeopardizing his health? Or more importantly, why didn’t someone tell Tom to go home?

Being a good teammate is about showing up willing to do the work and putting your best effort forward. In order to do that you have to take care of yourself, which sometimes means prioritizing yourself over the team, especially when you are ill. As much as you think you are helping the team by showing up, research shows that employees actually lose more productive hours by working while sick than if they would have taken leave.

Belief #3: My self-sacrifice will be reciprocated by the company. While, we would like to believe that corporate environments operate on the principle of reciprocity, this is not always the case. The Golden Rule, rarely makes it into employee manuals as corporate policy. There is no guarantee that your act of self-sacrifice, working while sick, will be rewarded, remembered or reciprocated by your employer. Sure, they may appreciate it, but you can’t bank on that appreciation serving you in the future.

I’ve seen too many cases where self-sacrifice doesn’t convert into the promotion, protection from downsizing or escape from a forced termination. Don’t choose to work while sick based on the assumption of reciprocity. Instead do it because you want to or better yet just don’t do it. Whatever gift you think you are giving your employer working while ill, you can offer a much better version of that gift when you are well.

When you hear it, read it or in my case type it, the idea of “work before wellness” sounds absurd. Intuitively we know something is wrong with this model, but breaking away from its influence over our decisions can prove to be challenging.

I’ve started to reprogram myself to place a premium on my physical and mental health and to give it the priority it deserves. When you think about it, without your health what do you really have? So, each day I try to make incremental decisions that instead choose wellness before work.



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