Explaining a Dark Side: Public Service Motivation, Presenteeism, and Absenteeism

Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2019, Vol. 39(4) 487 –510
© The Author(s) 2017
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X17744865
Explaining a Dark Side:
Public Service Motivation,
Presenteeism, and
Ulrich Thy Jensen1, Lotte Bøgh Andersen2,
and Ann-Louise Holten3
Public service motivation (PSM) has many bright sides, but recent studies also
find dark sides, connected to, for instance, higher stress and burnout. However,
results on the PSM–absenteeism association are inconclusive. One reason could
be that PSM increases presenteeism (going to work even when ill), which in turn
increases absenteeism and counteracts—or even exceeds—PSM-based reductions of
absenteeism. Based on a three-wave panel study of Danish public and private sector
employees, we find a strong positive association between PSM and presenteeism and
indications that the PSM–absenteeism link is mediated by presenteeism. The findings
suggest that going to work even on days when employees feel ill is a potential dark
side of PSM and that it may have long-term consequences for the extent to which
employees are absent from their jobs due to sickness. This cautions managers not to
expect that high PSM automatically guarantees high performance and low absence.
public service motivation, presenteeism, sickness absenteeism, panel data
The intuitive expectation for employees who are highly motivated to help others and
contribute to society would be for them to have lower absenteeism, because going to
1Arizona State University, Phoenix, USA
2Aarhus University and The Danish Centre of Applied Social Science, Denmark
3University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Corresponding Author:
Ulrich Thy Jensen, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University, 411 N. Central Ave., Suite 409,
Phoenix, AZ 85004, USA.
Email: ujensen@asu.edu
744865ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X17744865Review of Public Personnel AdministrationJensen et al.
488 Review of Public Personnel Administration 39(4)
work seems an obvious prerequisite for making a difference for others and society. In
general, public service motivation (PSM) research predominantly focuses on the
bright sides of PSM (Perry & Wise, 1990; Ritz, Brewer, & Neumann, 2016), but three
articles investigate the association between PSM and absenteeism directly. Wright,
Hassan, and Christensen (2017) and Edwards (2014) find no relation, while Koumenta
(2015) finds a positive association between PSM and (so-called) involuntary absentee-
ism and a negative association between PSM and (so-called) voluntary absenteeism.
Why are there so few studies, and why are their findings inconclusive? Could it be that
there is no net association, and that bias against null findings has limited the literature?
Whatever the reason, the lack of studies on this important association is problematic.
Absenteeism affects both the cost and the quality of public service provision (Wright
et al., 2017), and PSM might be an important predictor. On the one hand, PSM may be
able to reduce absence by reducing shirking. On the other hand, the emerging literature
on dark sides of PSM suggests that PSM can increase stress and burnout, and thereby
potentially increase absence. In line with the dark-side literature, we argue that PSM
might also increase presenteeism (going to work when ill), and given that presentee-
ism potentially increases absenteeism in the long run, this might explain the inconclu-
sive findings of existing studies. More generally, society might benefit more from
employees’ PSM if we can better understand its effects on presenteeism and absentee-
ism and prevent its potential dark sides.
The key argument in this article—that PSM may not be able to prevent sickness
absence due to its effects on sickness presenteeism—is based on several different find-
ings. Aronsson, Gustafsson, and Dallner (2000) note that the highest levels of presen-
teeism are found in occupational groups with care provision and welfare service at
their core. This is consistent with Barmby, Ercolani, and Treble’s (2002) international
comparison in which the sector with highest absence rates is health and social services.
The reason for these findings, we argue, could be that these sectors employ highly
public service motivated employees and that these employees tend to “do too much”
for society and others, increasing the proclivity to go to work even when ill. While
there may be short-term gains for service beneficiaries, going to work when ill can
have negative effects on employees’ health, causing future sickness absence
(Bergström, Bodin, Hagberg, Lindh, et al., 2009).
The theoretical basis for expecting PSM to affect both absenteeism and presentee-
ism draws on recent contributions within the emerging literature on dark sides of PSM
(e.g., Giauque, Anderfuhren-Biget, & Varone, 2013; Giauque, Ritz, Varone, &
Anderfuhren-Biget, 2012; van Loon, Vandenabeele, & Leisink, 2015). These studies
may offer some explanations for this proposed mechanism, finding that PSM is posi-
tively related to work stress (Giauque et al., 2013) and burnout and negatively corre-
lated with job satisfaction (van Loon et al., 2015). van Loon et al.’s (2015) interpretation
is that public service motivated individuals “sacrifice” themselves too much for soci-
ety and therefore potentially end up in a state of burnout.
Theoretical propositions on absence and presenteeism influencing downstream health
have been proposed (Johns, 2010), and presenteeism has indeed been empirically found
to increase the risk of reduced self-rated general health (Taloyan et al., 2012).

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