Back in 1980 I was a single mom and “permanent part-time” employee at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Like many working parents I feared illness because it meant using up sick days – which God had clearly intended to be used when your kid got sick.
Plenty of people still feel the same way – and quite a few workers come to work when they’re sick because they feel the place would collapse without them. A new study from Kimberly-Clark says 59% of employees come in sick, either because they’re too “essential” to stay home or because they’ve got too much work to do to miss a day.
Trouble is, their co-workers may wind up missing days if they catch whatever cooties Typhoid Mary/Marty is spewing into their shared breathing space.
You can’t control someone else’s behavior, but you can keep from adding to the problem by staying home when you’re unwell. I know that not everyone gets paid sick days and that some people are so worried about their jobs that they’re afraid to admit basic frailty. (Believe me, I know; more on that in a minute.)
Some people who come to work sick don’t much care whether they make you sick, too. A 2012 study cited in Infection Control Today showed that 84% of U.S. workers had gone to work sick, and that 45% took no particular precautions against infecting co-workers. (Seriously: Was that virus-ridden fist bump really necessary?)
That’s why you need to take basic measures to protect your health. Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests:
- Get a flu shot.
- Use sanitizing wipes on any shared equipment such as keyboards or telephones.
- Wash your hands regularly. Keep hand sanitizer around in case you use the same copy machine or coffeepot as Stan from Accounting, who’s wheezing like a bellows.
- Don’t touch your face! Eyes, nose and mouth are easy entry points for bacteria and viruses. (You probably don’t realize how often you touch your lips or rub your eyes.)
- Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise, drink a lot of water, and practice stress-management techniques. Get lots of sleep, too.
Afraid to be vulnerable
And if you do get sick? Stay home if at all possible, even if it’s “only” a cold. Think of how lousy you feel right now. Why make your co-workers feel that way, too? Besides, if you overwork your immune system some opportunistic infection may find its way in.
I understand that not every job comes with sick days, and that in this economy it’s scary to look anything less than 100% invulnerable. As a single mom I was afraid to get on the wrong side of the boss (even though I now know I was his best employee).
One time I developed back pain and general malaise. I took aspirin and ignored. A few days later I woke up with a fever of 103.
Did I go to the doctor? Nope. I went to work, on the theory it would be better to be sent home sick than to call in sick. For one hour I toughed it out, shivering and sweating and so sore I couldn’t sit upright, then told my supervisor I didn’t feel so good and I was going to go see the company nurse.
The company nurse took my temperature and exploded. “What are you doing here? Go to your doctor right now!”
It turned out to be a really bad kidney infection. (Hint: The fever went up after I got home.) I missed six days of work, and felt bruised for quite a while after my alleged recovery.
In the three decades since I’ve had a couple of kidney infections that, treated promptly, meant only a day or two of bed rest.
The costs of sickness
So yes, I know how tough it can be to give yourself time off. But it’ll take you longer to get over the illness and you’ll wind up paying more, in two ways:
Literal cost. You need tissues, OTC meds, extra juice or Powerade, maybe frozen dinners or takeout hot-and-sour soup because you can’t manage to cook for yourself or your family. If that cold morphs into a bacterial infection you’ll pay for a doctor’s appointment and antibiotics.
Figurative cost. Being with you won’t be much fun, and you may infect your roommates/family members to boot. In addition, you’ll feel like hell a lot longer than you have t0, whereas taking to your bed for a couple of days can hasten recovery.
Again: I know it’s not easy to admit you’re not Super Worker. If you’re barely making it, losing two days’ pay will body-slam the bottom line. (Another reason to have an emergency fund. Seriously: Start saving for it now. If you think you can’t, try some stealth savings tactics.)
But please stay home, for your own sake. Also for the sake of co-workers, the lobby barista (thanks for paying with a rhinovirus-laden fiver!) and the folks who shared the elevator in which you staged that epic sneeze-a-thon.
Readers: Do you get sick days? Do you use them?