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Coming to work sick

It’s early in the morning on a weekday and your alarm has just gone off for work. You open your eyes groggily, look around to get your bearings, and then you feel it. It could be the pressure in your head, or that itchy feeling in the back of your throat, or even the dreaded feeling in the pit of your stomach. No doubt, you’re sick.

We’ve all been here, and in this moment you’re faced with a decision that millions of Americans grapple with every day: do you call out of work or go in sick? For employers, this means potential losses and hazards to continuity of operations plans.

First, let’s cover what we mean by ‘sick’’.

Coming to work ‘sick’ or coming to work sick? 

There is a substantial difference between minor sniffles or a headache and high fevers, chills, fatigue or any illness that causes any sort of fluid to leave your body. That should be enough said for you to get the picture. For the purposes of this article, we will be using the latter. 

For some with paid sick leave, there is no question about calling off. That is not the case for all workers as the United States is one of the few industrialized nations that does not guarantee sick leave by law for all workers. So for workers who are not afforded sick leave, staying home means no pay, or even worse, no job to come back to. So in those instances, the employee will always choose to drag themselves into work in order to not lose their job or lose pay.

But what about the eligible workers who are afforded paid sick leave and still don’t take it?

According to a 2019 survey by international staffing firm Robert Half, 9 in 10 workers reported coming to work sick, with “too much work to do” cited as the number one reason for doing so (54%) followed by “don’t want to take a sick day” (40%) and “pressure from their employer” (34%).  

The Risk of Coming to Work Sick

If you find yourself in that 90% that goes into work sick, at some point you’ll have to consider what the risks might be for doing so.

Contaminating Your CoWorkers and Office

If your new-found illness is respiratory in nature, then every time you cough or sneeze without washing your hands, you can spread your illness to those around you. Uninfected people can even become infected by touching anything you have touched like doorknobs, phones, bathroom facilities and common area items. It is almost impossible for an adult to function in the work environment while washing their hands every time they cough or sneeze. 

Contaminating your coworkers is virtually guaranteed, which explains why 53% of respondents to a CareerBuilder survey said they got sick from a coworker

Contaminating Customers

In the event that your illness is gastro-intestinal, then going to work sick can have much larger ramifications, especially if you work in a customer-facing role or a food handling job.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that food-handling employees remain home during their illness and 24 hours after symptoms have subsided. Failure to do so can mean infecting dozens, if not hundreds, of customers in a very short period of time. According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 5 employees report to work with symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea. 

In the worst-possible scenario, contaminating an already compromised customer can result in their death

Placing Coworkers’ Safety at Stake

There likely isn’t an adult who has never had a cold so all of us are all too familiar with the ‘brain fog’ that comes with the common cold. Along with feeling terrible, a cold seems to make your thoughts sluggish, your reactions slower and any tasks requiring complex thought extremely difficult. 

As it turns out, science supports those feelings and a 2012 study, conducted by health psychologist Andrew Smith, reported that people with upper respiratory infections experienced reduced alertness and mental capacity similar to the effects of drinking alcohol or lack of sleep. Further, research into the link between illness and fatigue shows a strong correlation between infections and the strong desire for extended sleep. In other words, sick people are always tired and fatigued.

So if your occupation happens to be a high-stress, highly physical job such as a safety officer, firefighters or EMTs, going to work while sick will make you less alert, less able to process information and chronically tired and sluggish. All the factors that would make you a legitimate danger to your coworkers who expect you to perform at the same level they are. 

In occupations such as these as well as healthcare workers, small mistakes can have tragic consequences for patients, citizens and coworkers, and something so common as a cold can reduce a functioning adult to the same level they would be if they were under the influence of alcohol or did not sleep for an extended period of time. 

The Employer’s Role in Sick Employees

Learn more about how to protect yourself with COOPs

Continuity of Operations Plans (COOPs) protect business revenues and ensure hospitals remain compliant and prepared.

While the decision to come to work sick generally rests with the employee, that decision can be greatly impacted by the actions of their employer. Policies such as strict triggers for disciplinary review, few sick days offered, praise heaped on employees who ‘go the extra mile’ and few sick days permitted without doctors certification, all lead to employees feeling heavily pressured to drag themselves into work while sick, despite the aforementioned risks. 

While it is understandable that employers need to maintain disciplinary control over their employees in the event of sick-time abuses, employers also need to be cognizant of the cultural environment they promote towards employees who are legitimately ill and should remain home. 

Continuity of operations plans should consider the possibility of short-staffing due to illnesses. You can mitigate failure and losses through thoughtful planning, empowering and cross-training staff, and having thresholds for staffing that triggers actions. As part of VPC’s Continuity of Operations Planning courses and workshops, we mitigate your losses in advance so you keep mission-critical work moving.

Coming to Work Sick? Consider the Risks

As we’ve discussed here, there are more risks involved in coming to work sick than just delaying getting better. The risks for other employees, or worse, compromised customers, contracting an illness are much higher than one may think. 

With these risks in mind, employees should deeply consider their illness and the possibility of spreading it to unsuspecting people, while employers should promote a working cultural environment that supports employees taking sick time when needed. 

Troy Jester
Troy Jester

Troy Jester is an expert fire instructor, incident manager, OSHA instructor, and is a Certified Healthcare Safety Professional, Emergency Professional, and more.


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