Do You Go To Work Sick?

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 2008-01-0743

Right now, I’m pretty much out of sorts with a bad cold and with iffy weather upon us in the West Coast, I’m not going to take the risk of going outside. I was much more adventurous many years ago and exposed myself to the elements while recovering from the flu and instead caught pneuomonia.

So while sick in bed today, I debated whether I should go in to work anyway then decided against it. I decided that I didn’t want to be one of those employees still insisting on going in to work to make a good impression on their bosses, to the detriment of my co-workers.

But such a judgment call is something lots of employees have decided to make differently as they drag themselves in to work regardless of their condition. This, by the way, is a phenomenon with its own name: “presenteeism” (as opposed to absenteeism). There have been studies showing that presenteeism, or showing up to work when you’re sick, is the cause of more productivity loss than absenteeism. From the New York Times:

“Presenteeism is twice as big as absenteeism in America and accounts for two-thirds of the productivity losses that occur at work,” said Ronald Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. Productivity losses stemming from presenteeism could be as high as 60 percent of the total cost to the company of worker illness, eclipsing the costs of absenteeism and medical and disability benefits.

sick at work


For some informal statistics, here’s a look at the results of a casual MSNBC poll that asked the question:

How Often Do You Call In Sick?

how often do you call in sick?

It’s a live vote so you can participate. Now even from this informal survey you can see that only 6% of people are willing to use up all their sick days while 32% NEVER take sick days off. Talk about a dedicated work force!

I’m glad to hear that many companies are now insisting that their employees should be staying home when they’re sick so as not to cause the spread of germs although some companies still don’t get it. Besides, when we’re sick, we won’t be nearly as productive as we’d be otherwise.

By unexpectedly missing out on work, a lot of folks use up their paid vacation time or miss out on their hourly wages. But companies can do something to help by allowing telecommuting privileges for those jobs that can lend themselves to such an arrangement. What’s great is that some companies are really making strides in addressing their employees’ health concerns more. Here were some such policies I read about:

  • Telecommuting
  • Opening clinics around the work campus
  • Providing health education
  • Administering flu vaccinations on the work site
  • Combining sick and vacation days into PTO (paid time off) for more flexibililty
  • Unlimited sick time policy

I am particularly intrigued by the last perk on that list: unlimited sick time. I’ve actually never heard of any company that has established this sort of benefit, but it sure sounds sweet!

I recall that earlier in my career, I tended to play “the hero” by going in to work while sick when deadlines loomed. I did this much more often when I was younger. These days, I say “to heck with it” and climb into bed while I nurse my symptoms. I suppose this attitude reflects how one weighs their priorities — in my case, my career and job used to be my number one priority in years past while these days, my health and my family come first. Plus, acting the hero at work by showing up while sick is usually a sign of job insecurity (to some degree) so as the job market improves, the level of presenteeism usually drops.

I really wish employees would just stay home when they weren’t feeling well, because if they did, then I wouldn’t be as sick as a dog today.

Image Credit: MSNBC

Copyright © 2008 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Free From Broke January 7, 2008 at 12:02 pm

Personally, I don’t use many of my sick days. I have to be really out of it to call out (or one of my kids are sick). Of course my company only allows 6 sick a year so I have to be careful what I use. They used to have unlimited sick days but the problem there is it was being severely abused.

I think some balance between the two would help in my productivity. I like the idea of telecommuting. Many times I can be sick but could still do work if needed but I’m stuck at home. I think as technology gets better this will be more of an option.

All that said, if you have a fever or are feeling nauseous then don’t think of going to work. You’ll only make everyone else worse off.

plonkee January 7, 2008 at 12:34 pm

We have more or less unlimited sick time over here. I think if you need to take 3 months off in a year, they do something about but until that point, you’re pretty much ok.

guinness416 January 7, 2008 at 12:37 pm

Get well soon! My siblings (in Ireland) have unlimited sick time; the whole concept of a defined number of sick days cracks them up like you wouldn’t believe.

I really hate it when my colleagues insist on dragging themselves into the office ill or exhausted. If they would grab some papers and go home that would be one thing, but hey, that fails to communicate to the boss that they are hardcore. Ill workers are unproductive, are a distraction, and make everyone else sick or uncomfortable. Worse yet is being trapped in a conference room with some “warrior” who proceeds to cough and splutter through a four hour meeting, as has happened to me on more than one occasion; that’s really repellant!

And to end this rant, people who insist on bringing your symptom-riddled bodies in to the office – to many of us you’re not “the hero”, but “the doormat”.

Eden January 7, 2008 at 1:59 pm

This should vary a lot based on the type of work you do, but as a Web developer my presence is really only needed at work if there is an important meeting. I do not go to work when I’m sick because I want to stay home and work at getting better as fast as possible, I don’t want to get other people sick, and I know I won’t be very productive at work.

It really bothers me when people come in to work sick- they aren’t doing anybody any favors except in the case of an immediate deadline or emergency.

MyDebtQuest January 7, 2008 at 2:10 pm

Just a couple of weeks ago, one of my co-workers came in to work sick with one nasty head cold. He was sniffling, sneezing, and fevering all over the place. Since then, six others have come down with the same thing and missed work last week. I work for an ambulance service, so every absence needs to be covered, and 6 out at once creates a tremendous burden on those who do come to work.

If you are sick (actually sick), please stay home – you are doing no one a favor by coming in and infecting the rest of the workplace.

Frugal Dad January 7, 2008 at 2:32 pm

There is nothing worse than sitting next to someone in a meeting hacking their lungs out, knowing in 24 hours you’ll be doing the same. I would much rather see those folks stay at home, as I do myself when feeling bad. Now I do stick out minor colds, aches and headaches, but if I have a fever or a hacking cough I just stay home and rest.

Josh January 7, 2008 at 3:28 pm

My girlfriend’s workplace has an “unlimited sick day” policy. The catch? She’s gotta call up one of her big boss’ when having a day off. Myself, I make sure i keep my sick day buffer at around the 3 or 4 day mark and take them (sick or not) when I get to that point. Most companies don’t pay out sick time at the end of the year, so if you don’t take it, you loose it! Oh, and I agree 100% with Frugal Dad, can’t stand it when people show up to work practically dying.

Robert January 7, 2008 at 3:32 pm

The US military doesn’t have a set number of sick days.

Lily January 7, 2008 at 4:21 pm

In an ideal world, you’d stay home when you’re sick. Then, you’d recover faster and be more productive. You wouldn’t get your coworkers sick so they’d be more productive. Everyone is happier and better off.

But in certain industries, there is enormous pressure to show up if you’re anything short of dying. Investment banking is certainly an industry where illness isn’t looked upon as a valid excuse for absence. You don’t even get a respite from 15-hour days when you’re sick.

No one ever tells you that you need to come in sick. But when year-end reviews roll around, the people that made it in while coughing and feverish get extra points (and dollars) for being “team players.” It’s sick and twisted, but it doesn’t pay to fight convention.

As a sidenote, people should seriously consider the flu vaccine during the winter. Not only are you protected from the flu, but you also won’t be a carrier so your workplace is incrementally better off, too. This is why many employers offer free flu shots. It’s just a little pinch.

The Financial Blogger January 7, 2008 at 4:33 pm

I used to work in any possible conditions. At High School, I even played Handball with a cast!

Since I have two kids, I decided to calm down and take a day off when I don’t feel good. While I sometimes get remarks (I was known as an “ironman” for 3 years at the same place before starting taking days off), I fell much better and I am a more productive employee :-)

I think the important things is to not let your work getting your sick. Sometimes, we tend to push too hard at work. It’s primordial to draw a line somewhere.

RacerX January 7, 2008 at 5:39 pm

I am bad about this. I think that it is due to not wanting to admit that I am sick. I am much more likely to go home ill than call in…

However I do make it a point to try and avaiod making others sick as much as possible.

Mrs. Micah January 7, 2008 at 9:19 pm

Well, since some of my work is with newborns, I’m not allowed to come in if I’m sick past a certain point. At even before that, I might have to wear a mask.

I’m one of the people who calls out a few times a year when I’m really sick. Ideally, I’d like sick leave for extreme crampiness about 1 day per month. Maybe telecommuting half-day. I just feel so sick…but normally I go in anyway. Ugh.

Patrick January 8, 2008 at 7:53 am

I don’t often get sick, and I rarely use sick days. If I am sick though, the last place I want to be is at work.

Robert brought up the military as having unlimited sick days, which is true. But from my experience in the USAF it was a pain to use them (at least for a normal sick day). If you were sick you were expected to go to the clinic or hospotial to be put on quarters and had to get a doctor’s note stating the time, date, etc. However, for true sicknesses or surgeries, you could take whatever time the doctor prescribed. I had a couple knee surgeries and didn’t have to worry about using too many sick days. In that sense, it was awesome.

My current job gives us one pot of days to use for vacation and sick days – personal days they call them. If you get sick, you have to use all of your personal days… Goodbye vacation! I hear this is becoming more common.

MarketingDeviant January 8, 2008 at 7:58 am

You’re right that if one is sick, they should just take the day off. I believe the CEO, or the top officers should even state that if you’re sick it is better off that you stay at home instead of coming in to work to keep it from spreading it to the entire workforce. There’s a lot of job insecurity among the workforce so someone at the top should explain it to them that it is ok to stay at home when they’re sick. Doing so will ease the worker’s mind.

tracy ho January 8, 2008 at 8:01 am

You are right, if I am sick I know my priority now plenty of Rest , rest

All the Best

Tracy Ho
wisdomgettingloaded

rocketc January 8, 2008 at 8:41 am

I never take sick days. . . but I have been blessed with good health over the past few years (crossing fingers, knocking on wood, praying, etc.). but I think I caught a cold from reading this post last night.

By the way, is it bad if I am constantly getting the answer to your spam protection wrong all the time? No wonder I don’t have any money. I can’t add 10 + 2 accurately! ie-yi-yi

Asithi January 8, 2008 at 11:35 am

One of my co-workers is a workaholic. Last year he kept coming to work from even though he was sick so that his mild case of bronchitis developed into 2 day hospital stay with pneumonia. Then he was out for only 1 week before coming back to work. Everyone was telling him to go home, but being a single bachelor, work was his life. That was the same winter I developed a month long bronchitis cough as well.

Anitra January 8, 2008 at 1:45 pm

I get sick more often than I get sick days. Also, like Mrs. Micah, I have a hard time working when the monthly cramps are upon me… but I’ve never worked somewhere that would allow me to take 13-15 sick days in a year. In fact, 15 days would use up all my sick time AND all my vacation time.

So I drag myself in when I’m feeling generally under the weather, but I’ll stay home when I know I can’t do the job at all and/or coming in will definitely make me worse.

fathersez January 8, 2008 at 4:02 pm

It’s all a question of priorities.

Once we have made clear to all what our priorities are, the system adjusts.

I don’t know about the investment bank types though.

Brip Blap January 8, 2008 at 7:34 pm

My last job had unlimited sick days. My current job, like Patrick mentioned, has paid-time-off; use it for sick days or vacation or whatever, but basically once it’s gone you’re on unpaid. Honestly, I’m OK with that. I’m working as a revenue generator doing contract consulting and they give me unlimited time off, as long as I don’t mind being unpaid after a few weeks. I think it’s fair. What I don’t think is fair is the expectation that you work when you’re sick. When I was managing a team, I used to literally yell at people if they came in sick and send them back home.

It’s amazing how little people value their own health and sanity, isn’t it?

Get well soon!

Chief Family Officer January 8, 2008 at 9:37 pm

Like you, I wish the sick people would stay home! Also like you – I was one of them … until I had kids!

Finance Geek January 9, 2008 at 7:54 am

My company has a “General Leave” policy, which basically lumps Sick Days, Vacation Days, and a few forced holidays into the same general category.

Unfortunately it’s only 10 days a year, and after taking into account forced holidays (like Veterans Day) I have six (6) business days(!) a year to either take a vacation or get sick.

What’s worse, every leave day taken is a day not paid (if we don’t use them, we get them as a paid day). We don’t have the “use-or-lose” vacation day policy, so from an opportunity cost perspective I lose a day’s pay for every vacation or sick day I take.

Needless to say, I’m never, ever calling in sick. I can’t afford to.

Mister E January 9, 2008 at 8:09 am

We have unlimited paid sick days seperate from vacation and personal days but if you are off longer than a week short term disability kicks in for which I believe you need a doctors referral.

It’s a great thing but you need a somewhat disciplined team to avoid abuses.

silver January 9, 2008 at 9:47 am

If I’m mildly sick, I’ll go in. Christmas 2006, my whole family got sick with a stomach bug. I had thrown up several times before work started on the 26th. Not wanting to get my coworkers sick, and knowing that work would be slow that day, I called in sick, even though I had no sick time left. I knew I wasn’t going to get paid for the day, but given that I threw up 13 times by noon, it was the better choice.

I should note that I didn’t have any sick days because we’re required to use them before the end of the year. If we don’t, we lose them. This was the last week of the year, so I had used them already to avoid losing them.

I was penalized for it. It turns out that my company has a policy that if you call in sick the day before or after a paid holiday, you don’t get paid for the holiday. It’s to avoid having people pretend to be sick to get a longer weekend. So I wound up losing two days of pay because I didn’t want to get my coworkers sick or vomit all over the office. Nice.

margaret January 9, 2008 at 12:30 pm

I’ve read what everyone has written about sick days, however, I always feel really guilty for taking them. Feeling guilty about it prevents me from calling in sick unless, I am REALLY sick. One of my co-workers keeps telling me to go home over ever sniff and cough. But if i’m feeling fine other then a runny nose should I really be staying home sick?

Anna January 9, 2008 at 3:42 pm

My company has unlimited sick days. If you are sick, you stay home. If you are too sick to come in but well enough to get work done, you work from home. No one abuses the policy. If they did, they wouldn’t have jobs much longer. We’re expected to behave like responsible adults, and we’re treated like responsible adults. It’s all very civilized.

Mary Frances January 9, 2008 at 6:27 pm

My very first job out of college was with a Big 4 accounting firm. They had unlimited sick days and the firm assumed that you were a professional and could handle that freedom. It was awesome!

Now I’m at a local accounting firm and we only get 3 sick days per year. If you have a child, you know that is not nearly enough and I always end up using my vacation time.

My gripe with that is that you don’t get the real “vacation” time that you need if you’re using if for sick days. Sick days aren’t the same type of break. I’m all for unlimited sick days and vacation days that are not based on length of service.

Silicon Valley Blogger January 9, 2008 at 6:51 pm

I haven’t had a chance to chime in here yet as I’ve been busy recuperating from my malady. Now that I’m better, everyone else at home has caught the bug and I imagine I’ll have my hands full for a while playing Florence Nightingale.

But thank you all for the resounding response to this post — it looks like I touched a nerve with a lot of you, particularly those who’ve been sneezed at on the bus or by a “hard-working” colleague who just had to put in their hours even while in a feverish stupor.

Hopefully you don’t catch anything too nasty this winter!

Deb T. January 9, 2008 at 9:41 pm

Just last week I was out with a bad cold. I called in Monday, thankful that Tuesday was New Year’s day and that was already a holiday so I wouldn’t have to use any leave. I expected to go in on Wednesday, but still wasn’t feeling well, so I called in again. My boss called me at home to tell me that he hoped that I was doing okay, give me an update on work, and suggested that I take the rest of the week off. He ended the call with, “See you next Monday!” How awesome was he?!

When I finally went back to work, EVERYONE was like, “why did you come in?! Please don’t get us sick!” In a nice way, though.

It’s a completely difference environment than some other places I’ve worked. Some managers/co-workers just don’t trust that others may be legitimately ill. So they’d rather have you sit in the office and infect everyone.

tehnyit January 10, 2008 at 5:08 am

My dad told me an amazing benefit at his work. He accrued one day of sick leave for every week that he works. So if he is employed by them for a year, then he as 52 days of sick leave available!

Personally, if I am sick, I have no hesitation in staying home. With a family that I need to be responsible for, I need to be healthy so that I am able to provide for them. In my younger days, I would do what SVB do and show up for work sick. Amazing how the attitude changes with age.

Louise January 10, 2008 at 5:17 am

Not everyone has the luxury of being able to stay home when sick. People working as casuals who have less hours than they need to make a living wage will come in sick because if they don’t, the rent just doesn’t get paid that week. Also people who do have a full time job but are paid a very low wage are in the same financial position. It’s one thing to tell people in these types of positions that it is false economy to go to work when sick – that in the end they will get sicker and be forced to take even more time off work – but short term needs like food and rent will take precendence over that argument.

Mel January 10, 2008 at 7:15 am

State Street has unlimited sick days. I think it’s a good policy but I wonder how much it’s abused.

kitty January 12, 2008 at 9:34 pm

“I’ve actually never heard of any company that has established this sort of benefit, but it sure sounds sweet!”
My company has this policy and it is a very large Fortune 500 company. If you are out for a long period of time e.g. 3 months in a row, they want to know because I think then you have to go on short term disability. This policy has been around for years, even before telecommuting became so easy, and no, it is not abused at all. I think psychologically, if people have certain number of days they feel like they have to take it. If it is – stay home when you are sick, then people tend to take time off only if they are sick.

Another reason this policy isn’t abused is my company’s evaluation process which is based on what you accomplished and not on how much time you spent at work. If you are sick – fine, but at the end of the year you are still going to be compared to others who haven’t been sick.

I find it really difficult to stay at home when I have a deadline or something. These days I try to work from home as I am pretty annoyed when I see people coughing and sneezing at work.

Ex software test engineer September 14, 2008 at 1:18 pm

At most of the companies for which I used to work, not only were you expected to come to work unless you were in the hospital, but if you didn’t work late into the evening every day and come in every weekend, you weren’t considered a “team player” and it showed on your review.

These companies often combined sick days and vacation days into one pool of paid time off. You could use it for anything. However, it looked bad on your review if you used even one day.

Toms Rivers September 16, 2009 at 2:08 pm

I had no idea that this was twice as big of a problem than absenteeism in terms of productivity loss!

devin March 22, 2010 at 11:53 pm

Hey great post i was reading this and thinking about my old days in retail (The Worst) when you have to not only be at work, but deal with people the entire time you’re there. To put it simply, being at work while you’re sick absolutely sucks. Anyway, that was a huge reason why I began looking and eventually found myself a stay at home job. I came down with mono a while back and was forced to stay home for an extended period of time. Now bills don’t stop just because you’re sick.

Ashes September 24, 2010 at 9:01 pm

I prefer to call in when i am sick and get better. However, just the other day i started feeling sick while at work. I started vomiting and told my manager, he told me that i couldn’t leave until i found someone to cover my shift. I had to work 5 of the 9 hours that i was scheduled until someone could come in. The whole time i kept having to run to the bathroom. My manager also said that if i left without someone to cover my shift that i would no longer have a job. I was just wondering if anyone knows if that’s even legal? Did i mention i work in the food service industry?

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