You've Probably Done This and Your Co-Workers Hate You for It

Have you ever gone to work when you knew you were sick and should stay home? Unfortunately, the answer is probably yes. In a newly released survey by the staffing company OfficeTeam, 85 percent of respondents said they had come to the workplace while sick.

Their colleagues probably wished they hadn’t. When asked what co-worker behavior annoyed them the most during cold and flu season, 42 percent of respondents said it annoyed them when sick colleagues came to work at all, and another 42 percent complained that their sick colleagues sneezed or coughed without covering their noses and mouths.

Why would people who know they should be home in bed drag themselves to the office? You might think their bosses made them do it, but apparently not. The survey also asked 300 HR managers whether their companies encourage or discourage sick people from showing up to work. The vast majority–82 percent–say they encourage employees to stay home when sick, and only 1 percent say their companies encourage employees to come in if they’re not feeling well. This is nothing but common sense. Any competent manager would prefer to have even a key employee stay home for a few days rather than have the whole office (including themselves) battling the flu.

So if both employees’ bosses and their peers would prefer that they stay home while sick, why on earth aren’t they doing it? Why do people who know they’re sick show up at work anyway?

The survey asked respondents that very question. Here are their answers (and one conjecture of my own):

1. I’m not too sick to work.

This was the number one reason survey respondents said they went to work when they were sick was that they weren’t actually too sick to work, with 36 percent of respondents giving this answer. I suspect the underlying principle is our Puritan work ethic, which suggests that you should fulfill the obligations of your job unless you’re physically incapable of doing so. That’s the same work ethic that keeps us from taking vacations or leaving the office at a reasonable hour.

But it’s completely counterproductive. The point of staying home when you’re sick is not that you’re unable to work–the point is a) to get better more quickly, and b) to avoid making anyone else sick. If you go to work sick, you fail on both counts. So even if you could drag yourself to the office for that meeting you’re supposed to lead, you should still reschedule or hand the task off to someone else. Not only will you be healthier for it, so will everyone you work with.

2. I have too much work–I’ll fall behind if I stay home.

Almost a third of respondents said this was the reason they went to work while they were sick. Those employees have foolish and short-sighted managers. Short-sighted because they traded the short-term gain of having an immediate task completed against the long-term loss of the sick employee’s productivity because working when you’re sick means you won’t get well as quickly–and might make other people sick too. Foolish because they didn’t plan properly. In any organization, some employees will be unable to fulfill their duties some of the time due to illness, family emergencies, unexpected urgent business matters, or for any number of other reasons. If your boss doesn’t have a contingency plan in place where someone else can pick up the slack if you’re out sick, then your boss is too dumb to be a boss.

3. I don’t get any sick days.

Twelve percent of respondents said this was why they went to work sick. If this is your reason for doing so then you truly have a clueless–and hypocritical–employer. A boss may claim to discourage people from coming to work when they’re sick, but if staying home means they won’t get paid, or may even lose their jobs, then there will be sick people in the office and company policies will be to blame.

If you’re unfortunate enough to work for a company that doesn’t offer sick days, you should factor taking a few days off for illness every year into your plans. Either that, or find a more civilized place to work.

4. I do get sick days, but I’m saving them for something else.

This was the reason 9 percent of respondents went to work sick and it’s equally dumb. If you get a reasonable number of sick days but you’re hoping to save them all up so you can take the time to go have fun, cut it out. Use your sick days for what they were intended.

If you’re concerned you won’t have enough sick days either because your employer is stingy with them or because you or someone in your family has serious health issues, then you need to discuss that with your boss and/or HR. Incidentally, concerns like these are why a lot of smart companies are instituting unlimited paid time off. Something to consider.

5. My boss would be mad if I stayed home.

This is particularly interesting because 99 percent of HR managers said their companies either encourage people to stay home when sick or at least didn’t discourage them to. And yet 4 percent of survey respondents felt certain their bosses would disapprove if they took sick time when they needed. Those employees’ bosses should seriously rethink their approach.

6. The virus made me do it.

I’ll confess, this answer was not one of the options in the survey. And if it had been, I doubt many people would have chosen it. And yet, research shows that viruses can indeed dictate the behavior of both animals and humans. Not only that, a fascinating experiment at Binghamton University showed conclusively that people who have been exposed to the flu virus are significantly likelier to go out and mingle with others than those who haven’t. That serves the virus’ purposes perfectly, since people are usually only contagious during the first day or two that they’re infected. If the virus is going to spread itself to someone else it has to do it fast.

I saw this phenomenon in action myself a few years ago when my husband and I had planned a big New Year’s Day party. When he came down with a bad flu I insisted we cancel if only so all our friends wouldn’t get sick as well. The party was off, but then over my objections he insisted in having about a dozen people over anyway. I never heard if any of them got sick but I wouldn’t be surprised.

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