With cold and flu season upon us, many professionals will face the tough decision of calling in sick or just powering through, despite the fact that most companies discourage working when sick.

In new research from Accountemps, 90% of professionals admitted they've gone to the office with cold or flu symptoms. More than half of those who went to work while ailing (54%) said they did so because they had too much to do.

While you may worry about falling behind if you take a sick day, it’s far better to stay home, unplug and rest when you feel the flu coming on or you’re contagious with a viral illness.

In an ideal world, we’d all have unlimited sick days and paid time off, along with someone to bring us chicken soup, but that’s usually not the case. Besides potentially making your illness worse and infecting others in the process, going to work sick can cost your employer, too. Here are some general tips about when and how to call in sick:

A checklist to follow when calling in sick

  1. Send an email or call your manager at the start of the day. (Make sure you know ahead of time the preferred method of alerting your boss when you’re sick.)
  2. Send another message to key members of your team to let them know you are calling in sick and if you will be responding to email. (This is especially important when you have a project you’re working on or a deadline coming up.)
  3. Keep it brief and to the point. (There’s no need to divulge specific details about your symptoms.)
  4. Never lie or exaggerate your illness. (It can come back to bite you and permanently damage your credibility.)
  5. If you're a temporary employee, be sure you also contact your recruiter about your absence.


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 active symptoms, such as chills, fatigue and body aches. These are early signs of the flu, and you are 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. Staying home to rest will help you recover more quickly.
  • If you are vomiting or have diarrhea. Things like food poisoning and 24-hour bugs need bed rest and lots of fluids more than anything.
  • If you’re otherwise contagious. Anyone with a condition such as pink eye should definitely stay home to avoid passing on the illness to others.
  • If the medication you’re on affects your alertness. You won’t be at 100% while trying to do your job, and driving could be dangerous. Don’t risk it.

When it makes sense to go back or keep working

  • 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, or your doctor has given you the thumbs up, 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. Do consider taking a decongestant or antihistamine to minimize your coughing and sneezing, though.

How to avoid getting sick at work

  • Wash your hands frequently. Washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is the best way to ensure you don’t spread germs or catch them.
  • Try not to share too much. If you can help it, don’t share food, phones, keyboards or a computer mouse with coworkers.
  • Keep your workspace clean. Wipe down surfaces at your desk with an alcohol-based solution.
  • Consider getting a flu shot. Ben Franklin was right: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The Centers for Disease Control recommends annual flu vaccines to help you build antibodies that can protect you from infection.

If your company allows it, and you’re feeling up to it, working from home is an option. But keep in mind that the most important thing may be to focus on getting better. Pushing yourself when you’re sick may have the opposite effect.

By taking care of yourself and getting some rest after calling in sick, you’ll be on the road to recovery and back to work more quickly.

Employers, if you need backup during cold and flu season, Robert Half can help you quickly. Consult our staffing experts.