How often do people hide sickness for social commitments?

There’s a difference between how people believe they would act when ill and how they actually behave

A man stands outside a building with a mask on. — Unsplash

When we are hit with a cold or the flu, we often tend to follow a concerning trend where we conceal our illness to maintain work, travel and social engagements.

A University of Michigan study, led by doctoral candidate Wilson N Merrell, found that 75% of 4,110 participants have concealed an infectious illness in the past or plan to do so in the future, reported.

Many reported boarding aeroplanes, going on dates, and engaging in social interactions while hiding their illness with over 61% of healthcare workers also reportedly hiding their conditions.

Merrell said that the researchers found a difference between how people believe they would act when ill and how they actually behave.

“Healthy people forecasted that they would be unlikely to hide harmful illnesses – those that spread easily and have severe symptoms – but actively sick people reported high levels of concealment regardless of how harmful their illness was to others,” said Merrell.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, began in March 2020.

The first study involved 399 university healthcare employees and 505 students where participants reported their symptomatic days and frequency of symptom concealment.

They also indicated their frequency of actively covering symptoms, not reporting illness to others, or falsifying mandatory symptom screeners required by anyone using campus facilities.

A woman stands outside with a mask on. — Unsplash
A woman stands outside with a mask on. — Unsplash

Over 70% of participants covered up their symptoms due to conflicting social plans and pressure from institutional policies, such as a lack of paid time off, while only five admitted to hiding a COVID-19 infection.

The second study involving 946 online random participants found that those with low symptom severity were more likely to conceal their illness and were less likely to be contagious when they were in a social situation.

A third study involving 900 people, including those who were actively sick, were asked to rate the likelihood of covering up an illness in a hypothetical meeting with another person.

The results showed that individuals who were sick were more likely to conceal their illness, regardless of its transmissibility.

Merrell says that the COVID-19 pandemic may have influenced participants’ attitudes towards concealing illness, adding that future research could explore how ecological factors and medical advancements such as vaccines.

“It therefore makes sense that we may take steps to cover up our sickness in social situations. This suggests that solutions to the problem of disease concealment may need to rely on more than just individual goodwill,” Merrell said.

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