Do You Work Sick Even When You Shouldn’t?

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?

Do You Work Sick even when you know you shouldn't?

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.

Some estimates have the cost of health-related presenteeism as much as FOUR TIMES as high as the cost of absenteeism in terms of productive hours.

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 with changes.

6 thoughts on “Do You Work Sick Even When You Shouldn’t?

  1. Working from home is a blessing — though it definitely means that I only get to take a day off for really serious issues. I took 3 days off for the flu (I got it midweek, so this gave Tamiflu 5 days to do its thing).

    I took time off for the miscarriages. I took one day off when we had to put my first pet down. Even then, I got a little bit of “Well, couldn’t you take a couple of hours?” But I politely told them that I’d be a wreck, and it wasn’t a good idea for me to work that day. To be fair, that’s the only (very mini-version of) grief they’ve ever given me for any day I’ve asked off for any reason.

    Tim kept getting MRSA infections when he was still trying to work. He started missing days every 2-3 weeks, and he’d have to be out for 2-3 days until the antibiotics had definitely made him non-contagious. We always made sure that he never went in when he knowingly had any version of staph, though. It’s already far too prevalent. And MRSA is particularly virulent.
    Abigail @ipickuppennies recently posted…Why “The Ultimate Resource Guide” is absolutely worth the moneyMy Profile

    • I didn’t even think about MRSA and other drug resistant but contagious illnesses. It had to be scary that Tim was getting them so often, but I’m glad you guys were careful.
      It does sound from what you’ve said here and on your blog that you work for good folks. Having worked for understanding and not so understanding bosses, I know how valuable that can be.

  2. Sick days in education are such a joke. The only thing more stressful than waking up sick is trying to create sub plans while sick, getting materials and technology ready, and then going back home. The number of students who have come to school sick increases every year. I’ve had dozens of kids show up with fevers or vomiting. It definitely makes it hard for students and staff to stay healthy.
    Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies recently posted…A New Outlook on Our MortgageMy Profile

    • That’s another factor for me to work in sometime…it is a concern that even kids are coming to school sick more often. I may have worked sick as an adult, but I know my Mom always kept me home when I was a kid. But it seems she always had a couple of older ladies she could call to stay with us while she worked. I have no idea who Jon and I would call if we needed sick kid care, other than his parents (and since they’re quite a bit older, I’d be concerned about that.) It hasn’t been an issue because one of us is always home, but there do seem fewer options for parents to call on.

  3. I’m with Penny! If you’re a teacher and are sick (which happens often because schools are germ incubators), it’s often not realistic to call in sick. In my three years of teaching so far, I have not once called in sick. Trying to find a sub and make plans (other than the classic cop-out, showing a movie) would take more time and energy than just showing up to work, doing a mediocre job, and possibly spreading sickness to those around you.

    At one school I worked at, we had an internal sub system… that meant that when one teacher was out, all the rest had to sacrifice a prep period to cover. We were once told in a faculty meeting, “We really can’t afford for any of you to call in sick this week, we have a lot of teachers already out on field trips.” What!? That week I did get sick and did come to work. I had a student in class who was undergoing chemo and shouldn’t have been exposed to my germs. The second he walked in the door for class, I told him to spend the period in the library so I wouldn’t get him sick with his compromised immune system.

    It got so bad with the teachers who never called in sick resenting the ones who would stay home with the mildest of ailments or just to post on Facebook all day. The principal tried to come up with a system to incentivize those of us who showed up for work every day but then realized it’s unethical and illegal to compensate people for not taking sick days when ill. What a jacked up system and school, I tell ya!

    I think back at all of those unused sick and vacation days… Perhaps I wouldn’t have burnt out so fast if I felt like I was even allowed to opt out of work on the rare occasion!

    I hope one day to find an employer understanding of contagiousness and an employee’s need for genuine respite! Sick days are essential.

    (Sorry for the rant)
    Miss Thrifty recently posted…Miss Thrifty’s March 2016 Net WorthMy Profile

    • It’s difficult. Going around your regular activities when you are contagious can cause real problems, especially when you are around people with compromised immune systems. At least you were able to get your student away from you, but in a lot of situations a sick person might not be aware that he or she is putting someone at extra risk. Some people keep their health issues very private and often have very good reasons for doing so.

      Even if you aren’t contagious, you are probably less effective if you are going about your regular activities while distracted by pain or illness, and you put yourself at risk for complications if you don’t get the rest you need.

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