Sick? Please stay home.

thBack 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?

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  1. Ro In San Diego

    Wow Donna. This article really spoke to me. In 2009 one of my coworkers came in sick and gave me the flu the day I was to leave for my first trip to Europe. I felt like death warmed over. Luckily I was able to handle the tours we went on each day but spent the rest of the day in bed until dinner time so I didn’t miss too much. Cruises have a lot of built in unscheduled time. I was still sick when I got home. I can’t tell for sure if this guy was the reason I got sick but I am pretty sure. I have never confronted him since I could have contracted the illness from some other source; but I steer clear of him when I see him in the hallway just in case he’s sick again because he’s got prior. Typhoid “Marty! When I feel a cold coming on I go home for the rest of the day. I did this a few weeks ago when I wasn’t feeling 100%.

    • Donna Freedman

      If I feel I’m sickening for something, I try to take it easy and I go to bed very early. A solid nine or 10 hours of sleep (with help from generic Benadryl or ibuprofen PM) and I’m usually back on my feet.
      Fortunately I rarely become ill these days. In part that’s because I work at home (fewer opps for exposure) but I also think it’s because I’m happy in my relationship vs. fearful and stressed all the time. It doesn’t hurt that DF is a very healthy guy.
      Here’s to a contagion-free season for us all.

  2. I don’t get paid sick leave – but I’m lucky enough to work at a job where we can work from home if we wish. Because of this, people at my work are generally pretty good at staying home if they are feeling unwell – they just email in saying “working from home today, not feeling well” – so there’s no penalty and everyone else appreciates them not “sharing”.

    The other thing to think about is that if you have a flu or cold, often you’re most contagious *BEFORE* you feel the worst – so that first day when you’re just feeling like you “might” be getting sick? That’s the day to stay home – by the time you feel like death warmed over, you’ve already passed it around. So, I’m again pretty grateful for my company’s situation – everyone is pretty quick to stay home and work from home if they think they might be at the start of something, rather than trying to tough it out until the worst part.

  3. Donna, I can’t agree more. I’m 60-ish, diabetic and don’t have much of an immune system, so I’m very susceptible to illness. I get a flu shot every year, avoid crowds, have healthy habits and am almost always well unless someone MAKES me sick through negligence. And my office does give us sick time.

    A few years ago, a young co-worker sat near me with Influenza A, diagnosed by a doctor. She felt wobbly, but didn’t miss a day. I was flat on my back for a week despite having a flu shot, was nearly hospitalized and almost lost my job because of her.

    Another time, a woman came to work with flu and made FOUR older people sick in our area. She babysits grandchildren and often carries their ailments, while claiming she ‘can’t afford’ to stay home. So the rest of us can? I raised heck with our managers but they said they didn’t have the power to make a sick employee go home. They did promise to let me move to another area the next time someone came to work that sick. So far, so good, with fingers crossed.

  4. People could stay home from church, too. I was about 16 when a guy mounted to the pulpit with a swagger and began to tell the congregation how dedicated he was. He had been to Sunday School, had shaken the hands of all, and now revealed he had a 104F temp and did not let it keep him from worshipping like the Lord admonished him. Everyone in the church was alarmed, not the least of whom was my mother. She had three teens, an elementary student and a toddler. His bragging just alarmed her, showed her how much we had been exposed in order to show how faithful he was. He was actually staggering not swaggering!

    My mother was furious. Usually quiet, she now let the minister know just how she felt about the situation. Yes, she told the guy the danger he was causing. She said he could pay for the doctor and medicine to teat five children and possibly her and Daddy.

    Teachers go to school with an elevated temp, get a dr. appt. for during their break, go to the doctor and return to school and teach while still feverish. Students must have been to a doctor and have a note if they stay home even one day to get better without going to the doctor. Students miss instruction. They have no choice about avoiding a teacher who is ill.

    • Yeah, well, let me explain something for you, since I am a teacher. One, we’re not there? Kids lose instructional time. Two, very often when we do call in sick with temperatures, etc., we’re told “Sorry, there are no subs and no one to take your class today. You have to come in.” And if you don’t, many times you’re threatened with your job. Three, in case you haven’t noticed, we’re not exactly valued, so many parents are actually outraged when we choose to do things like stay home because we’re ill, or attend a funeral of a parent or grandparent, or God forbid, stay home to take our own children to the doctor. That’s the reasons teachers are often in school teaching with fever.

      • Donna Freedman

        My dad was a teacher, my aunt was a teacher, my sister and my niece are teachers right now, so I understand what you mean. Your frustration is well-founded.

    • LOL! Try teaching adjunct.

      If you don’t show up for class, you don’t get paid. Period. No exceptions.

      Pay is so low that you wouldn’t be doing the job unless you were desperate. Hence: I dragged into class for two weeks utterly miserable with bronchitis. No way could I do without that two weeks of pay, even if it killed me…which at one point, I sincerely wished it would!

  5. Wow, Donna — hit a nerve! For a REAL healthcare “fix” for this nation, employers should be required to pay sick days — with a doctor’s note to discourage the inevitable goldbrickers.
    Someone else in the comments noted that people are most contagious before they feel like death: we need to get back in touch with our bodies! Too many people can’t even tell whether their “stomachache” is gas from the burrito they lunched on, or appendicitis! My mom taught us kids to identify where it hurt, the way it hurt, and then backtrack to help find the culprit. It works, if we will take the time instead of popping a pill and hoping for the best.

    • Donna Freedman

      When I went to work at another newspaper I ignored a bad cough because I figured it was just asthma. While I was on an assignment it began to feel like a knife blade in my side when I breathed. I went back to the paper — where a couple of people said “Are you OK? You look awful” — and wrote it up, then told the editor I would be going to the emergency room at the end of my shift because I was having trouble breathing.
      “Does this mean you won’t be in tomorrow? Try to let us know as soon as you find out,” was the response.
      The diagnosis wasn’t pneumonia, but rather a bacterial infection and pleurisy (the knife-in-the-side thing). The doctor told me to stay in bed for at least three days. I asked her to please write a letter to that effect, and took it home with me.
      Sure enough: When I called the next day, bright and early, and explained the diagnosis and treatment, the editor said, “We’ll need to see a doctor’s note.” No “gosh, I hope you feel better soon” or “do you have anybody to look in on you?” And in fact my then-husband was out of town and I spent the next three days taking meds, trying to force fluids and feeling very, very vulnerable; we’d just moved there and I didn’t know anybody.
      Compare that to my previous job, in Anchorage, where people actually gave a damn. Sigh.

  6. My job offers no sick days or health insurance. I only stay home in extreme situations. Maybe twice in the last 10 years. It’s not the best thing to do, but sometimes it’s the only option.

    • That’s exactly the point I was going to make — some people don’t get paid sick days! Both my twenty-something daughters do not have this benefit. If they stay home, they get docked a day’s worth of pay.

      They’re working without benefits, anyways, and at a low wage. So every penny counts.

      If you have allotted sick days, fine. (And staying home from church or a social event is a no-brainer.) But it’s easy to be bossy about this sort of thing, if you’re not the one who’s going to be paying for it — literally.

    • Donna Freedman

      I understand. Believe me, I do. As that permanent part-timer whose child thankfully rarely became ill, I was walking a knife’s edge as I got no child support or any kind of government assistance. My situation was very frightening — which in turn scared me into thinking I wasn’t allowed to take a sick day, ever, because what if the boss got mad at me and started cutting my hours?
      Desperate times, indeed. It stinks.

  7. Ugg my husband had one of these Typhoid Mikes at work. It seemed every week he had another ailment, cold, flu. And, of course, the husband….also a diabetic….would get the crud. Since that man left the company, the husband has contracted….nothing. (and I’ll add he has never missed a day due to his diabetes, ever)

    But its a pressure thing. Some of these employers simply will not excuse anything. Particularly upper management who have more flexibility in their schedules…..certainly not the poor slob on the line who punches a time clock and is given points for absences.

  8. I will never forget some years ago a coworker of mine refused to go home and lose even a few hours of work although she had a kidney infection that was causing tears to run down her face.

    Earlier she was showing pictures of the boat she and her husband owned.

    I apologize for this but I seriously want to smack some people upside the head.

    • Don’t apologize, Anne! I feel like that many times too – you feel what you feel. But as long as we just feel it and don’t do it, we’re good. 🙂

  9. I think part of the problem is society’s view of the seriousness of illness. When I was younger it was considered a bit frivolous to take a sick day. Now that attitude seems to changing with people understanding that being sick really is dangerous and sick employees need to be kept out of the office – at least that attitude seems to be improving.

    • Donna Freedman

      Yep. When I was a kid, you were expected to go to school/work unless you couldn’t stand up. I do recall having sore throats so bad that I couldn’t swallow my breakfast, but all my mom could do was give me a dime for a box of cough drops. She worked, and no doubt had the same fears about losing her job as I did after my daughter was born.
      The kids in my class were the same way. Each winter brought a cacophany of sneezes, coughs and nose-blowing. We went to school because we were supposed to be there. Not very healthy for everyone sitting around you, but that was the ethos back then.
      I do remember both parents working while they were ill, coming home so wiped out that they’d lie on the couch after supper or go to bed early. Put another way: When you saw my mom just lying around, you knew she really HAD to be sick.

  10. I found out the grocery stores around here do not have sick pay. The one I frequent the most has a lot of refugee/immigrant employees, who probably don’t have a lot of resources. I was really shocked when I heard that. They are handling a lot of food. That to me is borderline criminal.

  11. Mirabella

    As a substitute teacher, I do not get paid sick days, but at least I have a flexible schedule so that in case I need to take a day off (whether for illness, doctor appointments, family obligations or simply to goof off) I can do so without penalty. That would probably make me the equivalent of a freelancer, where I have to find a balance between the benefits of a free time schedule and the need for a livable paycheck.

  12. I supervise a small staff and this is the biggest problem we have: every flu season I find myself yelling at someone to GO HOME because they’re a scary shade of green and are having trouble sitting upright. After a few years of this, people are getting better at not coming in (and I think they are more concerned about making me and the other moms of young kids ill – it’s like germ theory finally caught on). Most of them have paid sick time but they are just too dedicated to their jobs – and I think it’s been a cultural shift from a previous supervisor.

    The hardest person to deal with is the receptionist, who is “part-time” (5 days a week for 7 hours/day – that sounds part-time, doesn’t it?). She doesn’t get paid sick time and does serve a pretty essential function. She works another part-time job, too, so I usually tell her she’ll get better faster if she takes a day to REST from all work… but I totally get why she comes in sick. She doesn’t have health insurance so just going to the doctor is an expensive hassle – PLUS missing work so no pay… it makes me so angry. January 1 can’t come soon enough – she’ll be covered under ACA. Flawed as it is, it’s going to help folks like her.

  13. The time I was sickest and wished to die was when a 6th grader in my class came up to me and sneezed right in my face. He was back in school in 2 days…it took me 2 weeks! Most of the time I was in bed aching, throwing up, feverish, etc.
    Parents often sent their kids to school sick because of babysitting problems.

  14. imjunipernow

    My job makes me sick. Can I stay home every day?

  15. I try to drink water constantly and take my vitamin c. I work from home so when I get sick it sucks but I try to push through.

  16. Joe Carbone

    This is a good reason to have a telework policy that allows employees to work from home if they feel well enough to work, but are still contagious. Use sick leave for times when sickness requires rest.

  17. You’re riding my favorite hobby horse, Donna!

    One thing that especially makes me crazy is to find food workers — in restaurants and grocery stores — sniffling and snorting and red-cheeked with fever. Every piece of fruit or vegetable the grocery checker with the flu touches is smeared with viruses that will sit there for more than enough time to spread them to me when I put all that stuff away. Thank you very much.

    The issue is that minimum-wage workers (and many who earn more than that) no longer get enough paid sick leave to cover even one bout with the flu, bronchitis, or a heavy cold — to say nothing of the several bugs most people pick up in the course of a year. And now the corporate style is not to provide sick leave at all: only X number of days of “leave” per year, which you can use for vacation or to recover from illness, as you please. So if you stay home with the flu, you don’t get to go on that vacation you’ve been planning all year!

    The way working Americans are treated gets worse and worse. We seem to be reverting to the 19th century in that respect. But thank goodness we don’t have them thar evil unions telling The Man how to treat his slaves…uhm, employees, eh? 😉

  18. This should be office policy 101! More often than not we end up picking up infections through no fault of our own and its just costly on everyone!
    We don’t have paid sick leaves at work, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from doing whats prudent…with a bit of forward planning I believe one can weather a few days without work.


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