The moral regulation of the workplace: presenteeism and public health


Address for correspondence: Kevin Dew, Sociology Programme, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140, New Zealand e-mail:


This paper draws on Durkheimian concepts of moral forces, particularly anomie and fatalism, and the forced division of labour, to argue that the current institutional arrangements to protect and compensate workers in hazardous workplaces are insufficient. This argument is illustrated with interview data from workers at a meatworks in New Zealand which examined workers’ responses to illness and injury in the workplace. It is suggested that an imbalance in moral forces leads to pathological outcomes for workers – seen in presenteeism – the phenomenon of staying at work when injured or ill – and workplace injustice. There are state institutions such as worker compensation schemes and occupational safely and health regulations, and other intermediary groups such as unions, that can act as a buffer against anomic and fatalistic forces in the workplace, but at present these countervailing regulatory and advocacy forces are not sufficiently protective of vulnerable workers. Public health advocacy and research could fill the current void.