Feeling Under the Weather? Avoid Going to Work Sick

By Robert Half October 20, 2016 at 3:00pm

With cold and flu season on the horizon, many administrative professionals (unless they’re feeling deathly ill) will face the tough decision of whether to call in sick or just power through. A new survey shows that 85 percent of employees report going to work sick, despite the fact that most workplaces discourage working when sick. 

The survey of 300 HR managers and 500 U.S. workers found that only 1 percent of workplaces discourage workers from calling in sick. The vast majority of companies, 82 percent, encourage workers to stay home when they’re ill. And 17 percent of companies neither encourage nor discourage employees from working when sick.

If you don’t have paid time off, deciding whether to work sick becomes a lot tougher, and other family arrangements can complicate matters.



The No. 1 reason for going to work sick, reported by 36 percent of survey respondents, is that he or she felt “well enough to work.” The next most common reason, garnering 32 percent of the responses, was that there was too much work and staying out would cause them to fall even further behind. About 12 percent of people reported it’s a dilemma for them because they don’t have sick days, and 9 percent want to bank the time they have in case they need it later. Manager disapproval was the reason for working while sick for just 4 percent of respondents. 

In an ideal world, we’d all have unlimited sick days and someone to bring us chicken soup, but that’s usually not the case. If you don’t have paid time off, the decision for or against going to work sick becomes a lot tougher, and other family arrangements can complicate matters. Besides potentially making your illness worse and infecting others in the process, working when sick costs your employer, too. “Presenteeism,” as working when sick is often called, has its own downsides: It’s estimated to cost employers billions annually in lost productivity. Here are some rules of thumb to decide whether going to work sick is a good idea or not.

Find out how to be a team player even when you have to work remotely.

When to absolutely stay home

  • If you’re seriously sneezing and coughing. This is how a cold spreads, and if you don’t have your own office, frequent coughing is likely to disturb your coworkers.
  • If you have chills, fatigue and body aches. These are early signs of the flu, and you are actually often contagious a day before you have symptoms.
  • If you have a fever. A high temperature signals that your body is fighting something off and that you need to rest. Not going to work sick and staying home to sleep it off will help you recover more quickly.
  • If you are vomiting or have diarrhea. Things like food poisoning and 24-hour bugs need one thing more than anything: rest and lots of fluids. 
  • If you’re otherwise contagious. Anyone with a condition such as pinkeye or staph should absolutely stay at home to avoid passing on the illness to others.
  • If the medication you’re on affects your alertness. You won’t be at 100 percent while trying to do your job, and driving could be dangerous. Don’t risk it.

When going to work sick might make sense

  • If you’re no longer contagious. You are capable of transmitting the cold or flu virus to others for about a week after you initially get sick.
  • If you’re feeling a lot better. Once you’re out of the danger zone, going to work can be a relief from the monotony of staying home sick.
  • If it’s just allergies. They’re annoying, not contagious, so there is no need to worry about getting your coworkers sick from your allergies. Do consider taking a decongestant or antihistamine to minimize your coughing and sneezing, though. 

How to avoid getting sick at work

It’s better to stay home than go to work sick and make everyone around you sick.


  • Wash your hands regularly. Washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is the best way to ensure you don’t spread germs or catch them.
  • Cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow. If you’re fighting off a cold, keep those germs contained by controlling the flow. Coughing or sneezing onto your hands is much more likely to spread the contagion.
  • Keep your workplace clean. After you’ve been sick, be sure to wipe down surfaces at your desk with an alcohol-based solution.
  • Always get your flu shot. Ben Franklin was right: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In addition to not getting the flu yourself, getting your annual shot helps you avoid going to work sick and passing on the virus to others.

If your company allows it, working while sick from home is a good option if you’re contagious but feeling fine mentally. But if you work with the public, you can be a hub for infection, so it’s better to stay home than go to work sick and make everyone around you sick. By taking care of yourself and getting some rest, you’ll be on the road to recovery and back to work more quickly.

If you need backup during cold and flu season, consult our staffing experts

More resources to help you avoid going to work sick

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