Permission to rest

Permission to rest

/ 04:20 AM February 05, 2024

I recently struggled with a persistent cough that wouldn’t go away. Even if I knew my body needed me to slow down, I kept coming to work to meet various start-of-the-year commitments, including preparing for the visit of an international accreditation body to our school. Noticing that I was having a hard time, our principal stepped in and mandated me to take a break. My other team members also insisted that I do not attend any meetings, including virtual ones. Looking back, their collective intervention was not just timely, but necessary. It seems I needed to hear their reassurance—that I have their permission to take a break and focus on my recovery.

Presenteeism refers to the culture and practice of working even while sick. A 2022 survey conducted by Milieu research firm with over 6,000 employees across Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, found that 71 percent of employees have chosen not to take sick leave despite being physically unwell. Others said that they felt pressured to prove first to their supervisors that they needed to take time off.

One would assume that in a post-pandemic world, deciding to stay home when unwell would be more of a straightforward choice. In reality, however, the decision continues to be muddled by professional pressures and the challenge of managing perceptions. Professor Gail Kinman, an expert in occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, has identified that certain individuals are more likely to engage in presenteeism. These include: a) individuals deeply engaged with their work and exhibiting workaholism tendencies; b) those who feel unsupported by their managers and colleagues, and concerned about how their absence will be viewed; and c) those who feel they lack control over their workload and schedules and are anxious about meeting their deliverables if they take a leave. The psychology behind presenteeism reflects a broader problem where the high value on productivity compels individuals to “soldier through” rather than prioritize their health and well-being.


This mindset promotes an unsustainable cycle. Employees who work while sick not only have compromised efficiency and focus, but they also risk longer illness durations causing them to miss even more work in the future. Presenteeism creates an unhealthy work environment where individuals are perpetually caught between the demands of their roles and the limits of their physical and mental health, inevitably leading to burnout.


Unfortunately, this kind of thinking might be unintentionally inculcated at an early age. Before the pandemic introduced stricter protocols on how to deal with sick children, it was not automatic for school nurses to send students home unless they had a high fever or were deemed “sick enough.” Very rigid attendance policies could be subtly sending a message to young people that they should keep going, even when they are feeling unwell.

Addressing presenteeism calls for a reassessment of work norms and expectations. As more and more companies are making environmental, social, and governance (ESG) commitments, we need to keep employee well-being at the forefront by fostering environments where health is prioritized and supported through clear policies, ample health, and sick leave benefits, and a workplace culture that genuinely respects and values overall wellness.

This includes providing employees with the assurances they need to feel secure in their decisions to prioritize their health. Another key insight from the Milieu research is the disparity between employers’ perceived expectations of sick leaves and the employees’ behavior. When employers were asked when they think their staff should come back to work after being sick, 69 percent said they should only do so after they are fully recovered. But when employees were asked the same question, 48 percent said they would usually return to work when they are “almost recovered, but still a little unwell.” And only 27 percent wait until they are fully recovered. This suggests that more subtle sources of pressure within the work culture that could be driving presenteeism should also be identified and addressed. I realized that as the leader of my organization, my tendency to keep pushing forward might be compelling others to also mirror my behavior and unhealthy attitude toward work.

Personally, this was a wake-up call to set clear boundaries between dedication and self-compromise and acknowledge how success cannot be sustained by sacrificing well-being. We need to change the way efficiency is glorified as a sole and direct measure of advancement. We need to rethink our understanding of productivity, focusing not only on output but also on cultivating healthy, resilient communities. After all, a society that thrives recognizes there is also wisdom, strength, and growth to be gained from pausing—not just forging ahead at all costs.

[email protected]

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

TAGS: opinion, pandemic

© Copyright 1997-2024 | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.