Researchers found that sick day absence dropped by 30 per cent in situations where a fellow worker was expected to pick up the burden.
The study, conducted by economists at the University of Aberdeen, looked at absence rates among more than 60 optometrists in the north-east of Scotland.
It found that those working in teams of two, who would be expected to pick up extra appointments because of their colleague’s absence but without extra pay, were significantly less likely to call in sick than those working alone.
Most studies in this area have focused on how wages, sick pay and working hours affect absence rates.
But the latest study is the first to reveal how relationships with work colleagues play a significant role in our decision-making.
Dr Alexandros Zangelidis, senior lecturer in economics at the University of Aberdeen, co-authored the study.
He said: “Economists have traditionally modelled human behaviour by assuming people maximise their personal satisfaction subject to some form of constraint, whether it be money or otherwise.
“They tended to say relatively little about the effect of relationships between family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues.
“Such neglect reflected perhaps not an ignorance of the importance of such interactions, but rather an awareness of how difficult it is to model theoretically, and measure empirically, such phenomena.
“Our study is the first to model and measure the relationship between workplace cooperation and absenteeism, and in doing so we show that people aren’t as selfish as we might think.
“If we take this evidence and apply it to a much broader context, then I think the study reveals something profound and very encouraging about human nature that isn’t commonly captured in standard economic analysis.”
The study has been published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization.