Many Adults Likely To Conceal Infectious Illnesses

By Alana Smart / February 14, 2024 / Blog ,

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Many Adults Likely To Conceal Infectious Illnesses

From the mundane to the severe, illness is an inevitable part of human existence. Yet, our social lives continue amidst bouts of sickness, raising intriguing questions about how individuals navigate interactions while under the weather. University of Michigan researchers found that a significant number of adults conceal infectious illnesses that could endanger others. The study,  published in Psychological Science, underscores the profound implications of illness concealment for public health and highlights the urgent need for comprehensive solutions to address this pervasive issue.

Unmasking Illness Concealment: Study Discoveries

The study, involving over 4,100 participants, unveiled a persistent behavioral strategy for concealing illnesses. Remarkably, 75% of participants, including 61% of healthcare employees, admitted to concealing sickness at least once or expressed that they might do so in the future. Many participants even reported boarding planes, going on dates, and engaging in other social interactions while secretly sick. Respiratory illnesses such as the common cold or flu were frequently concealed according to the findings.

In a second study, 946 online participants were randomly assigned one of nine conditions to envision being moderately or severely sick in various social situations, with different levels of illness transmissibility. Participants tended to hide their illness more when symptoms were mild and less contagious than in severe and highly infectious cases.

Additionally, 900 people were recruited for another study using an online tool, including those who were actively sick. Individuals were asked to assess the transmissibility of their illness and their likelihood of concealing it in social interactions. Results revealed that actively sick individuals were more inclined to hide their illness, irrespective of its transmissibility. This may suggests differing perceptions of concealment consequences between ill and healthy individuals.

“This suggests that sick people and healthy people evaluate the consequences of concealment in different ways,” said Wilson N. Merrell, a doctoral candidate and lead author of the study, “with sick people being relatively insensitive to how spreadable and severe their illness may be for others.”

Navigating the Perception Gap

A notable disparity exists between individuals’ perceptions of their behavior when sick and their actual actions. While healthy individuals anticipate reluctance to conceal harmful illnesses, actively sick individuals exhibit high levels of concealment regardless of the potential harm to others. This discrepancy underscores the need for targeted interventions to bridge the perception gap and promote a culture of transparency and accountability in the workplace.

Unraveling the Motivations

The motivations for illness concealment are multifaceted. Many stem from personal and social factors rather than institutional pressures like lack of paid time off – although a small percentage of participants said that it was a factor. Individuals may conceal illnesses to maintain work schedules, fulfill social obligations, or uphold productivity, a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, often leading to social exclusion for those with infectious illnesses.

These motivations suggest that interventions targeted solely at policy modifications may be insufficient. Instead, solutions must encompass broader societal norms and support systems to address the underlying motivations for concealment effectively.

Implications for Occupational Health

The findings of this study carry profound public health implications. They spotlight the motivations and tradeoffs individuals navigate in social interactions while sick. The research underscores the imperative for multifaceted solutions that extend beyond individual responsibility by illuminating the prevalence and drivers of illness concealment.

The implications of illness concealment extend far beyond individual well-being, posing significant risks to workplace health and productivity. Employers must recognize the hidden dangers of concealed illnesses and implement proactive measures to mitigate these risks. Managers can model the behavior they want to encourage by staying home when they’re under the weather. Employers have a pivotal role in fostering a healthy work environment, from policy interventions to educational initiatives.


Ready to elevate your workforce’s health? Partner with NMS Health for your occupational health screenings. With NMS Health, you are not just identifying and preventing future illness. You’re investing in a safer, healthier future for your team. Get started today!

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