The weird reason Americans are so afraid of taking sick days

Photo: Kelly Sikkema

Coming down with a cold or stomach bug is hardly ever considered a matter of opinion. You’re either under the weather or you’re not, right? Well, according to a new study conducted at the University of Texas at San Antonio, it isn’t that simple. A number of factors, especially the culture we grew up in, play into how we experience and interpret the physical and mental sensations of an illness. 

These findings are especially relevant in light of the ongoing novel Coronavirus scare currently gripping the world, particularly for Americans. It’s well documented that Americans take less time off from work than virtually any other developed nation, and many U.S. workers find themselves pushing through illnesses to avoid missing a day of work. 

This “keep working” mentality among U.S. citizens may be especially detrimental regarding the coronavirus’ highly contagious nature. All it will take is one worker hoping to avoid using one of their limited sick days to contaminate an entire department.

On a subconscious level, the same symptoms that would prompt a French or Canadian worker to clearly recognize they’re feeling sick and take a day off, probably wouldn’t elicit the same response from an American. Why? Due to the fact that U.S. workers have been inundated with the idea that it’s their duty to shake off that sniffle or whooping cough and make it through the workday.

Besides just culture, the research team says that one’s gender and ethnicity can also play a role in how they define a “socially appropriate sickness.”

During the research portion of the initiative, survey data was collected from 1,259 respondents who had been sick with influenza or the common cold over the past calendar year. Each person was also asked to indicate their current level of sickness, if any, ranging from “not sick” to “severely sick.” 

As far as U.S. workers, the study’s authors uncovered some surprising results regarding who is most likely to recognize and acknowledge that they’re feeling sick. Three main traits were identified: workers who make less than the U.S. median household income, individuals who claim to have a high pain tolerance (stoics), and people who frequently deal with bouts of depression. Regarding males specifically, men born to a tight-knit family are also more likely to report feeling sick.

“It’s ironic. You think that being a stoic would mean that you are more likely to be reserved, but according to our survey, it has the opposite effect,” comments Eric Shattuck, a biological anthropologist with UTSA’s Institute for Health Disparities Research, in a press release. “Stoics could own up to being ill as a bragging right and maintain a disease for longer than is necessary.”

Meanwhile, people making less than $60,000 annually, regardless of gender, probably report feeling sick more often for an entirely different reason.

“In regard to lower-income levels, perhaps those individuals were more likely to claim to have been sick because they didn’t necessarily have the means to seek medical attention and, therefore, symptoms became severe,” Shattuck explains. “This perhaps made them remember the illness.”

Shattuck also offered an explanation as to why men from caring families feel sick more often. “It could be that family support allows men to feel more cared for and therefore rely on that social safety net,” he notes.

Sickness, in general, is a universal phenomenon among living beings on this planet, from ants and squirrels all the way through the evolutionary pecking order to people. Humans, obviously, enjoy far greater mental capacities than animals. Just like how our ability to form complex societies and meaningful relationships has influenced our approach to other facts of life like sex and parenting, the profound accomplishment that is human culture, and subsequently work culture, has also shaped how we perceive and deal with illnesses over the centuries as well.

“For example, other researchers have shown that the majority of individuals who work in many fields, including medicine, are often likely to show up to work while being sick. If you think about it, this is about work culture and it has consequences,” Shattuck notes.

There’s also the matter of stigmatization to consider as well. Everyone catches a cold now and then, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being particularly psyched to announce to the world they’ve come down with the coronavirus. Many may end up in denial about the situation and force themselves to report for work. This would be the absolute worst approach.

“Maybe people are more comfortable reporting being sick when it’s a common cold,” Shattuck concludes, “but what about those stigmatized infections, such as HIV. What about the coronavirus? How are infectious diseases claimed using a cultural or economic lens?”

Americans clearly aren’t afraid of hard work, but considering the current Coronavirus situation, here’s hoping we’re all a bit more willing to take some time off in the event of a sickness.

The full study can be found here, published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.