It’s that time of year again. Children are back in school. Football games are on television. Halloween candy, pumpkins and cinnamon-scented pinecones are lining grocery store aisles. It means that cold and flu season is just around the corner; the time of year when many Americans will show up sick to work. A survey conducted by Wakefield Research found that 62% of American workers have gone to work sick. For some, the choice is losing pay or coming to work. 38% of private-sector employees lack one paid day of sick leave, according to AmericanProgress.org. What’s worse is that low-income workers are less likely to have access to paid sick days, putting them at risk for falling below-poverty-line if missing work due to illness.
Even American workers who are offered paid sick days don’t always take them. Only 16% of employees used all of their paid sick days in the past year, according to a July 2016 survey by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. While 6% of workers used most of their paid sick days, 45% used only some and 32% didn’t use any.
The reasons vary as to why workers didn’t use all of their paid sick leave—roughly 73% said they weren’t sick enough, 37% wanted to save them for another time, 28% said there was no one to cover their workload, 20% claimed that they had too much work to complete and 20% said not taking time off would help them get ahead.
We live in a fast-paced society filled with workers who don’t want to slow down long enough to take a vacation, much less miss work due to illness. Yet people are feeling the strain of both choices. Whether it’s stress-related illnesses from skipping vacations and working long hours or struggling to fight off a cold for weeks instead of days because we refuse stop and give our bodies downtime. Here are three reasons why you should never come to work sick.
1. You are contagious.
This seems like a no brainer. You are contagious, and therefore, shouldn’t infect the whole office with a cold or flu virus. Schools have guidelines to send home sick kids with a fever, pink eye or vomiting. Why? They don’t want the whole class to get sick. No one wants to get his or her coworkers sick. They also don’t want to get behind at work or give their coworkers extra jobs to do. However, the majority of people would probably rather have a slightly longer “to do” list than be sidelined by the flu for seven to 10 days.
Remember that some of your coworkers may also have infants or young children at home, take care of elderly relatives or even have a compromised immune system due to chronic disease or medical treatment. These individuals are at a higher risk for developing complications from a cold or flu virus. Do everyone a favor when you are contagious and stay home. For most cold and flu viruses, you are contagious the day before symptoms arise, which you can’t help, and five to seven days after getting sick. If you really can’t take the time off, ask if you can work remotely from home. And if you do head back into the office before that week is up, please practice good health habits like avoiding close contact, washing hands regularly and covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze.
For c-suite executives and managers, set the example for your employees. When you are sick, stay home. If your company doesn’t offer paid sick days, consider implementing a plan for employees who truly can’t afford to miss work when they are sick. Also, if someone has a severe cold or case of the flu and he or she comes to work, you can send that employee home for the safety of the rest of the staff. Check with your HR staff to ensure you follow proper procedures, and please note that the rules for employees with chronic illnesses and diseases are different.
2. You are more likely to make mistakes.
When you don’t feel well, your thinking is muddled and even doing a mundane task can be exhausting. Not to mention that you may be taking a medication with side effects that affect your cognitive thinking or motor skills. So heading into work is probably not the best choice. Yet, people often think that coming in to get “some” work done is better than getting no work done. Or they want to be viewed as a team player and a reliable and dedicated employee who won’t stop for allergies, back pain or a pesky cold. But perhaps you should stop, stay home and get some rest.
Presenteeism is a term used to describe this phenomenon of employees coming to work when they are ill and not able to function at their usual level of productivity. Studies have found the total annual cost of lost productivity from presenteeism is estimated at more than $150 billion. Employees who are “out of it” tend to make more mistakes, spend more time on tasks and struggle to make sound decisions.
Employees suffering from a cold or flu, can typically stay home, drink fluids and come back to work when they are healthy. But employees who are suffering from a chronic condition, such as allergies, back pain or depression may need to work with their employer on a solution that will help them perform their best at work while maintaining their health.
3. You may stay sick longer.
When you are sick, your body needs time to recover. You need to rest, drink plenty of water and avoid stress. Otherwise, a cold that would typically last three to seven days may linger for two weeks. No matter what line of work you are in, chances are there is an element of stress involved. When you are sick, stress can be like pouring gasoline on top of a fire—the next thing you know, you need a fire hose instead of a fire extinguisher.
Stress itself impacts your immune system and can actually cause you to become sick. Most people are aware that not getting enough sleep or eating healthy can make them more susceptible to catching a cold or virus. But studies have also found that high levels of stress can make it harder to kick a cold or the flu.
This past week, one of my employees, Erin Lankau, Quaintise’s account director, had to take some time off due to illness. Her advice for people dealing with any form of illness is to allow yourself to check out and focus your mental energies on self-care. “The pathway back to health is a balancing act and having the right boundaries about the amount of stress you let into your life is key,” she says.
The best plan of action when you wake up feeling poorly is don’t ignore it. Everyone has tried to pretend they are not really sick at one time or another. But you will only succeed in making your illness worse and taking longer to recover. Most employers would prefer their staff members to take a couple of days to recover and get healthy, rather than staying sick for weeks because they refuse to slow down.
If you are unsure whether you are too sick to go to work, WebMD has some guidelines for common ailments such as cold and flu, sinus infections, pink eye and back pain that can help you determine if your symptoms are severe enough to stay home or if you should be able to take some medication and tough it out. Perhaps the best test, however, is putting yourself in the shoes of your coworkers. Would you want a coworker to come to work if they were as sick as or feeling as poorly as you?