When I was in my 20s I worked for a used book store with a regular staff of 6. Then 2 of them got fired, and we had a staff of 4 people to cover 78 hours of the business being open.
Needless to say, sometimes I was the only person scheduled to work in the morning (though fortunately not at night. The 6’9” bearded guy took that shift.)
So one day when I woke up with the flu, I dragged myself out of bed, into the car, and went to work sick. Even though my knees were shaky, I still went in, counted the register, and did all of the opening chores before calling someone else and saying “Hey, I have a fever of 101. I don’t think I can stay here today.”
Fortunately, my coworker agreed to come in, and I was only at the store for an hour and a half before I got to go home and go back to bed. He didn’t catch the flu, but there were a few customers who could have easily picked up my illness as we passed books, bags and money back and forth.
I went to work sick that day, because my coworkers depended on my presence, but also because I had no paid sick leave. The staff passed around colds regularly in the winter, as well as the occasional stomach bug.
You had to be really sick not to go to work, and the sniffles weren’t supposed to slow you down. That workplace was not particularly tolerant of parents taking off work for sick kids, either. After all, someone still had to man the store. Be there.
As the company got larger, it got more tolerant of taking off for being sick. People gave credence to the idea of not coming in sick and infecting your coworkers, but the old “If you can walk, you can work” mentality was still around.
It took forever for me to come around to the same idea, even after I went to work for a place with a more generous sick leave policy. Colds were to be suffered through with a little medicine and a box of Kleenex on the desk, not a reason to take off work for more than a day or so. We had work that had to get out every day, and a missing person made that a lot harder to achieve.
People got irritated me, though, and rightly so. Yes, I was managing my part of the workload, but I was also putting them at risk of suffering through the same wretched symptoms. I might have been making more mistakes. If I stayed home, I might have rested and gotten well faster.
Eventually I got the message and became more careful about going to work sick. Who knows how many problems it may have caused for others in the meantime?
It’s Not Just Me
Around 40% of the private workforce doesn’t have paid sick leave, but even the ones who have it don’t necessarily use it. Considering that the average cold can be contagious for a week, and the average adult gets 2-3 colds per year, it’s not really surprising that most of us end up working sick on a regular basis.
Even in the most tolerant of workplaces, it seems like missing a day or two is one thing, but missing a week gets the side eye and a pointed request for a doctor’s note.
Presenteeism (people working distracted due to physical or emotional issues) is a problem, one that costs American businesses billions of dollars. Sick workers do infect their colleagues and customers. Distracted workers ( and as anyone who’s tried to work with a runny nose knows, you are definitely distracted) are less productive and more prone to accidents and injuries.
So why do we do it? Why do we work sick? Because undoubtedly people who know better still come to work when they shouldn’t.
In a 2013 survey, 90% of workers admitted to coming in to work when they knew they were contagious. Like me, they did it for a number of reasons: to help carry or stay on top of their workload, to keep from losing money due to lost work, to avoid looking like a slacker, because their boss said they had to and because they just don’t want to stay home.
Like me, they know better than to work when they’re sick, but sometimes they do it anyway.
Raising Its Head Again
I Just started a new job. Small staff, tight schedule, and of course, no paid sick leave.
I haven’t gotten sick. I’m washing my hands frequently, and trying to take care of myself and get plenty of rest. I’m trying my darndest to stay healthy, and so far so good.
I have a Kindergarten kid living under my roof, though, and chances are, another bug will make it into my house before the weather turns warm.
Will I do what I ought to do and stay home when the sniffles raise their ugly head? Or once again, will I work sick even though I know better?
How do you approach a sick day? Is your workplace tolerant or impatient with illness? What’s the best approach to take?
Top Image courtesy of marcolm at FreeDigitalPhotos.net. with changes.