It’s flu season. Nasty bugs float freely through the office. Workers who succumb are faced with a hard choice. Do you bring your sniffles and sneezes to work, or call it quits and retire to the couch for a few days?
Presenteeism, or coming to work when ill, and unable to operate at full capacity, is common. Many go to work sick, trying to save sick days for when their children or elderly parents may need them. Others fear reprimand, job loss or appearing less committed to the organization.
Dreading a back log of work, emails and messages upon return is another reason worker’s don’t take time to recuperate. Some feel guilty thinking they are not pulling their weight and small business owners literally lose money when they stay home.
Nevertheless, going to work sick has its costs. We risk infecting our colleagues, customers, clients and suppliers. And, in certain occupations, like food services, being contagious at work can be disaster.
When we work while ill, our productivity suffers. People are more tired than usual, less able to concentrate and slower in their work. Co-workers may complain about getting a cold from a sick peer and this can lead to resentment on the team.
Dealing with a sick co-worker who insists on coming to work ill, can be a headache. Being upfront about asking co-workers to sneeze into their elbow or inquiring as to why they didn’t stay home, is the best approach. If the answer is, “I’ll be burden to you if I stay home”. Take the opportunity to discuss workload and expectations with your co-worker.
Sometimes your colleague may not be able to stay home because it means losing a day of pay or they are banking sick time to use when their family members get sick. If your co-worker is citing these reasons for coming in to work sick, talk to a supervisor. The organization needs to be alerted to issues that may be encouraging worker’s to come to work sick.
If you are sick, consider staying home. If you are worried about letting people down, call in. Talk to your colleagues about how to get the work done in your absence.
If you can’t say home, protect your colleagues, wash your hands frequently and keep your distance. While many employers worry that people call in sick to get a paid day off, this practice is usually an indication of low morale at work. Workplaces where people are unhappy, tend to have a higher incidence of “mental health” days than happier workplaces.
If morale is low, resist the temptation to call in sick, think about what you might do to change the situation at work instead. It will actually harm worker health to stay in a toxic workplace long term, or do nothing to improve the situation.
If you seem to be sick regularly, on Mondays or Fridays, be careful, taking days off and calling in sick to get a long weekend, can jeopardize your future. Most employers notice patterns like these and intervene. Numerous absences without a good reason can net a poor reference from your previous employer or delay a coveted promotion.
Supervisors can play a role in helping sick employees. One organization sent staff home if they came in the door sick. This signalled caring on part of the employer and other staff appreciated the healthier environment. It also let workers off the hook if they tended to believe staying home sick would let others down. Being sent home by the supervisor, legitimized the worker’s condition and provided a sound reason to be absent.
Managers can use medical guidelines to help staff know when to stay home or when to return to work. If disciplinary action is undertaken in the presence of a certain number of absences, beware that the policy isn’t inadvertently encouraging employees to come to work sick.
Offering staff flexibility when managing their time is important. Some workplaces allow staff to bank time for use as they see fit. As well, allowing staff to work from home can help if an employee is concerned about falling behind. However, encouraging staff to rest and recuperate is the best policy for everyone in the long run.
Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.