WORKPLACE / OCT. 26, 2014
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To Work or Not to Work: That is the Question (When You're Sick)

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Cold and flu season is breathing down our necks, and fears of Ebola and entero-68 are likely to cause even more dirty looks aimed at you if you go to work visibly sick. But you also know that the answer isn’t as simple as telling you to stay home. There are complex reasons why many employees choose to not stay home, and some of them aren’t easy to fix.

  • No paid sick time: Perhaps the most challenging problem is that many hourly employees in the U.S. don’t have access to paid sick leave. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid. While a handful of states have passed laws requiring paid sick leave, and a few companies offer it even if it’s not mandated, the vast majority in the U.S. don’t offer it for hourly and/or part-time employees. If that describes you, and you’re barely scraping by on a full paycheck, you probably can’t afford to give up even one shift.
  • Doctor’s note required: Even some businesses that do offer paid sick leave require a doctor’s note. But if you’re already alternating months between paying the water bill and the electric bill, you’re not going to want to pay for a doctor’s visit when you know it’s just the same cold or stomach bug everyone else has had. It’s cheaper all the way around to just drag yourself to work.
  • Saving it for other uses: Some employers have tried to solve the problem by lumping all paid time off into one bucket, regardless of the reason. But that creates the problem of employees wanting to hoard their time for vacation, not for being sick.
  • Job insecurity: Even salaried employees who do have paid sick leave are often reluctant to take it in times of frequent layoffs. You may be one of those who worry that, if the boss realizes the office can function without you, you’ll be out of a job.
  • Feeling overloaded: Employees who are already struggling to keep up with their many responsibilities may be reluctant to stay home because they feel like they’ll never be able to catch up.
  • Face time fears: Employees who are up for a promotion or even a performance review may want to see and be seen. You don’t want to miss out on rubbing elbows at the water cooler at a critical time.

What employees can do

More than likely, you eventually be faced with the dilemma of whether you should go to work or stay home sick. These tips can make that decision easier:

  • If you’re an hourly employee, try to set aside at least one shift’s worth of pay in a savings account. You may have to give up a few lattes or dinners out with friends, but at least you’ll have the security of knowing that, if you wake up feeling like death warmed over, you have at least a one-day cushion. If you can set aside more than one day, so much the better.
  • If you do stay home and have a job you can do remotely, make it obvious that you’re doing at least a little work from home. Answer emails, and send your boss updates of conversations with clients, status reports on projects, etc. Thanks to technology, it can be easier to stay on the radar remotely than in the office next door.
  • If you feel like staying home will mean you’ll get so far behind you’ll never catch up, stop and ask yourself if that’s really true. When you feel really lousy, you might be able to accomplish more if you’re in your cozy pajamas with your dog curled up on your feet. And you can take a nap when you’re tired, then get back up and work later, even if it’s after regular business hours. Worried about disappearing from the radar for a couple of hours while you’re napping? Prepare some scheduled tweets that can go out while you snooze.
  • Try some common sense. Maybe your company’s official policy is that you have to bring a doctor’s note, but you can call and explain to your boss that you have the stomach bug that’s going around and are experiencing projectile vomiting – and say you feel too sick to go to the doctor, but will come in if he insists. Most managers will want you to stay far away and, if they can pull it off, will bend the rules to help you do so.

Even in a normal could and flu season, companies lose uncounted time and productivity due to employees coming to work sick. And if that were the only thing to think about, it would be an easy decision to stay home. But when you have sick leave that’s either non-existent or had to implement, it can be a tough call. Ideally, you’ll stay home and work remotely until you’re completely healed. Your co-workers will thank you.

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