Stop a Sick Day In Its Tracks

Managers and supervisors can use this simple technique to help stop an employee sick day before it happens: Let a stressed-out worker know you care by offering supportive treatment.

Workers under a lot of stress may experience headaches, stomach pains or fatigue, which could result in taking sick leave. According to a new study from the University of Haifa, supervisors who offer support to the stressed employee may succeed in helping the worker feel better and able to stay at work.

The United States loses approximately $225.8 billion a due to absenteeism, making this a big issue for the American work force.

"With the enormous economic losses due to absenteeism and with this still being a poorly understood phenomenon, the results of this new study are shedding light on those factors influencing sickness absence and which can be considered in the effort to reduce the losses without compromising work ethic and commitment," explained lead study author Michal Biron, Ph.D., of the University of Haifa's Graduate School of Management.

Earlier studies have shown that employees facing stress at work develop psychological strain that translates into physiological symptoms. Biron set out to examine what interpersonal workplace dynamics may influence the worker's burnout symptoms and whether those dynamics have an effect on when the individual ultimately takes sick leave to recover.

Making a Difference

Researchers examined a sample group of 241 workers in a manufacturing enterprise in China. The supervisor-employee distance in the China work force provided researchers with a particularly relevant context to examine the role of supervisor support relating to absenteeism.

Workers were asked to report on common somatic symptoms, such as headaches or muscle soreness, that they experienced over the past month and to indicate how often their supervisor provided them with emotional and instrumental support once they experienced physical symptoms of stress.

The study results suggest that support from a supervisor when an employee is experiencing psychosomatic symptoms of the stress can make a real difference. When the boss offers support in the form of a lightened workload or stress management training, workers feel more inclined to reciprocate the supportive treatment by keeping their work effort high – and by staying at work.

"The worker who is given this sort of support is more likely to overcome the somatic stress and continue to work productively, leaving recovery for the normal after-work hours when we recharge our batteries," said Biron.

While stressed workers who do not receive this sort of support from the boss might stay at work out of fear for their positions, this is not a sustainable solution. These workers will be less likely to shake their symptoms, which means they eventually will need to take more sick time.

Coworkers can play a role, too: Early support from coworkers, just when an employee begins experiencing stress, can help reduce the likelihood of that employee needing to take sick leave.

"We see from this study that employers can provide concrete support for employees experiencing somatic stress symptoms, but can also encourage coworkers to support one another in the first place and minimize the effects triggered by their workload," Biron said.

The study will be published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology.

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