Academics who work when sick risk burnout, professor warns

Survey of more than 5,000 UK researchers finds about half keep working when they are unwell

January 17, 2019
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Academics who work while sick suffer higher levels of emotional exhaustion and lower job satisfaction rates, a major survey of UK university staff has revealed.

Using a survey of 5,209 UK academics, researchers found that those who worked while unwell were significantly more likely to register higher levels of stress and unhappiness in the workplace, suggesting that “presenteeism” may be damaging the mental health of staff.

The practice of working while sick appears to be endemic in UK academia, with 49 per cent of respondents stating they “always or often” showed up for work when unwell. A higher proportion – 53 per cent – report “always or often” working from home when sick.

Those academics who worked on while sick often did so because they did not want to let down students or colleagues, indicating high levels of commitment to their job, said Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, who carried out the survey with Siobhan Wray, from York St John University.

“Academics have a deep level of engagement with their jobs – they often feel indispensable to their department,” said Professor Kinman.

New analysis of the as-yet-unpublished results, which was shared with Times Higher Education, showed that academics who had high levels of engagement in their work were 50 per cent more likely to work while sick compared to those with lower levels.

Those who reported having high job demands were nearly three times as likely to work while sick, the survey indicates.

Many staff, however, worked on because “there is a growing culture that staff must always be available”, said Professor Kinman. Some respondents continued working while suffering serious illnesses or injuries, even working from their hospital bed via a laptop while recovering from surgery.

“Many people soldiered on while having coughs and colds, knowing they would feel wretched that day, but they would manage, but others talked about working with some very serious symptoms,” Professor Kinman added.

The fear of being unable to catch up while sick or having to ask colleagues to cover were also major reasons for academics working while sick, the study showed. “Many people said the thought of catching up on their work was more stressful than being ill, so they chose to carry on working even if they weren’t fully ready to return," said Professor Kinman.

With academics able to carry out many of their tasks from home, there is a new “Twilight Zone” about what constitutes being sick, given that many staff can do some duties from home while ill, said Professor Kinman.

“But working on like this can be quite risky because it is likely to delay your recovery and will affect you one way or another in the end,” she said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Staff who soldier on risk burnout

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