Poorly Sick – To Work or Not to Work?

In my humble opinion there’s nothing worse than being ill. Other than feeling rubbish it’s a total imposition on your life – suddenly you can’t think straight; you have no energy; and spend you most of your time either asleep or wishing you were asleep. I am not a good ill person – I mostly think I’m dying (even if it’s just a cold) and feel incredibly sorry for myself! A little like man flu, but worse… This is how I feel at the moment. This is my second (count ‘em!) cold in a month and I’m sooo fed up! 😦

But I’m not here to moan (well ok, maybe I’m here to moan a little!) – I’m here to debate the issue every poorly person faces: Should I go into work when I’m sick? Absenteeism versus presenteeism, if you will. It’s always such a difficult call! UK employees take nearly 7 days off sick a year, on average, but obviously that incorporates everyone from those signed off on long term sickness absence to those who never take a day off.

No-one wants to be the one in the office who’s “sick again” though! We’ve all been there – we want to go in so we can get our work done; so our colleagues won’t think we’re skiving; so we can get paid (well, if you’re self-employed or only get SSP). But let’s be realistic – when your colleagues come in sick, you hate it right? And there are several good reasons for this:

  • They’re potentially contagious and are oozing germs!
  • They’re in a bad mood and don’t want to talk to anyone.
  • They’re too tired and ill to concentrate on anything properly.
  • You know they’ll end up being ill for ages because they’re not getting any rest.

But it’s easier said than done – circumstances don’t always make it easy for you to stay home and recuperate, and business owners (especially of SMEs) can be as guilty as anyone when it comes to this, even though they know it can potentially cost them more money and that they risk infecting their staff. Particularly in small businesses, every employee is key and nine times out of ten there is no-one else to cover the workload. No, the world won’t come to an end if you don’t go in, but when you’re already feeling awful (and, if you’re me, a bit over-emotional too) then the prospect of returning to an even greater workload is totally overwhelming.

So you have three options really:

  1. You go in and martyr on
  2. You stay home and get well
  3. You work from home

Working from home can be an excellent compromise. With the advent of broadband, remote logins, company mobiles and so on, working from home has never been easier. You can keep on top of your emails, delegate tasks to colleagues AND get some rest at the same time. All whilst keeping your germs to yourself!

Maybe you shouldn’t listen to me though because it turns out I’m a total hypocrite. I hate when other people come into work sick, but here I am coughing my guts up and with a nose red from too much blowing, and you know what? I’m going in to work tomorrow…

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14 Responses to “Poorly Sick – To Work or Not to Work?”


  1. 1 Helen Stothard December 21, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    What a great blog and surely this is the age old dilemma.

    I don’t do sick, yet am often ill, I just don’t have time to be sick and have little patience for it.

    My experience of employers is that whatever decision you make you are wrong, if you soldier on and go in they complain that you are spreading germs and not doing your job properly, if you don’t go in then you are a slacker, not really ill etc.

    I think the working from home option is too often overlooked, sometimes you can be more productive working from home (obviously I am now biased as I am a work at home VA now!) but it does offer a viable alternative that employers should consider.

    Hope you feel better soon!

    • 2 Wendy December 22, 2009 at 11:46 pm

      Thanks for your comments, Helen!

      I think you’re right really – whatever decision you make will never really be right in the eyes of your employer/colleagues. Perhaps if they see you being revoltingly ill on the first day then any following days are a little more acceptable, but even then…!

      Working from home is, IMO, a great idea and is something I have done in the past. Unfortunately though it does very much depend on your role/company as to whether it’s viable. Stephen also raises an excellent point – if you don’t get unlimited sick pay, does working from home constitute a full day of work or a half day sick? If only life were more black and white! 😉

  2. 3 @HRMargo December 21, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    The absentee rate in the US is higher than the UK. It is a serious issue, considering that American companies and their employees are going to be hit hard with the H1N1 virus as the flu season continues. We underestimate the impact absenteeism can have on productivity and profitability. Each person’s job has an output requirement (regardless of their level in the organization). If one were to calculate the output of each person, and multiply that by the number of sick days each year, HR Pros would be astounded.

    It’s not a question of whether or not to go into work when we don’t feel well. The issue is how will organizations compensate financially with the onslaught of flu season. The next question an organization should ask is why are so many people calling in sick. Is because they are legitimately sick? Is it because they hate their jobs? Is it because they can’t stand their manager, or the company in which they work? Is it a question of whether there is something wrong with the organizational culture? Senior level managers would be well served to identify the “why” question, and determine exactly what they can do to compensate for their losses. Ultimately, it’s the company that loses.

    An individual can always go out there and find another job. A company can’t go out there and find another company-when they are the company? Right? Who’s hit the hardest? Small to mid-sized companies.

    I wrote a blogpost about the H1N1 virus after I attended a seminar given by Ohio’s finest Infectious Disease Specialists. After the seminar, I was panic struck about how Human Resources Departments are going to deal with this most serious issue.

    I think a lot of HR pros have their heads in the sand about this issue. Whether it is the blue flu, the man flu, or the real flu–we have to address how we plan to deal with this issue in short order.

    As always, Wendy, your posts are wonderful. They always make me think.

    Sincerely-Your Twitter Sister,

    @HRMargo

    • 4 Wendy December 23, 2009 at 12:08 am

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Margo – you raise several interesting points!

      I have, in the past, worked for company that only paid statutory sick pay (SSP) which is the UK minimum and is, basically, not very much – just under £80 (or $130) a week and you have to be ill for more than 4 days to qualify! That put me in a really difficult position. I wasn’t earning very much at the time and couldn’t really afford to not get paid, so I’d go into work dead or alive – even if it meant I sat there all day doing nothing. And really, I had it easy – I was young, living at home with my long-suffering parents, and with no real commitments. I can only imagine how much harder it would be now with a mortgage, cats (not quite kids! 😉 ) and so on! So I totally agree – employers have to consider the consequences of not at least offering some level of sick pay, even if it is a finite number of days per annum. But on the other hand I understand their reticence a little. Someone I (used to) know was entitled to three weeks of sick and and you know what? He took every last day of it, regardless of whether he was actually ill. And it’s people like that who ruin it for everone else!

      I think H1N1 has been a good exercise in getting people to think about planning more. Particularly in SMEs it only takes a couple of people being off to have a huge impact on business and an awareness of this is important. Thankfully the virus has not been too bad in the UK so far, but the flu season is upon us and this winter will no doubt be an interesting test!

      Thanks again for your comments!

      -Wendy

  3. 5 Lisa Scales December 21, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Great post Wendy and I used to be one of the guilty ones of spreading germs in the workplace until I got really poorly a few years ago (not these days as I only have a hop and skip to my office!)

    I kept on going whilst poorly with bronchitis thinking that no one would cope if I wasnt there (ridiculous thoughts of being indispensable and that my offices would stop making placements because I wasnt there)and I ended up with pleurisy which essentially feels like you have a small horse sitting on your ribcage whilst you are in a desert wearing a fur coat…

    In the end I took a heap of time off as I couldn’t physically get out of my bed and not only did the offices take a fantastic she needs out support so we will pull out all the stops attitude I also missed loads of nice stuff like a wedding, a ski trip and a friends party and it taught me a very good lesson that sometimes it is better to just give in and be poorly in the first place as in the long run it is better for everyone all round.

    • 6 Wendy December 23, 2009 at 12:17 am

      OMG, Lisa – pleurisy?! I didn’t even think that was somehting that existed any more! Sounds vile! Excellent to have had such an understanding employer though. Do you think it’s easier or harder now that you’re your own boss?

      I do agree that there comes a time you have to say enough is enough and take a break to get ill. My other half has this thing called labyrinthitis ( http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Labyrinthitis/Pages/Introduction.aspx ). Most people have it for 2-3 weeks but he’s currently finishing his third year of it! When it first came on, he had a few days off and then went back to work feeling he couldn’t take any more time off. A few weeks later he was worse. So much so that he ended up being signed off for weeks and, for some time after that, could only work part-time. His employer has been incredibly supportive of him too; something for which we’re both eternally grateful for! But here we are, three years on, and he still suffers from dizzy spells and issues when using a PC. We’ll never truly know for sure, but it’s very likely that if he had taken sufficient time off to begin with his recovery might have been a lot quicker. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, huh!

  4. 7 Stephen O'Donnell December 22, 2009 at 12:18 am

    As a boss, I’ve always been a bit of a sap; if you’re sick, stay away. However, I do expect staff to avoid self-inflicted “illness”, such as hangovers, and I absolutely insist on them calling me directly. I absolutely despise the act of getting someone to call in for you. That is the mark of a coward or a skiver. With mobile phones, there is no excuse of being unable to get to the phone. Moreover, I want you to tell me what you have, how long you might be off, and what work can be done by others in your absence. Equally, you may be able to do some work from home.

    I used to have a staff member (recruiter), who suffered badly with endemetiosis. This meant that she was almost entirely out of action for a week every month, and was sometimes difficult to be around. However, she was a very good recruiter, and popular with clients and candidates.

    So, or the HR people out there, does it count as a full or partial sick day, if you are doing some work from home?

    • 8 Wendy December 23, 2009 at 12:27 am

      Thanks for your comments Stephen. I think you’re spot on with the calling in directly! The only time Mr J’s ever called in sick on my behalf was when I was ill with the norovirus and had finally passed out for a bit on the couch after a night of D&V. Even then it was only because he didn’t have the heart to wake me, not because I asked him to! There’s never really a good excuse for not ringing directly! Even if it’s early and out of hours you can leave a message confirming you’re not going to be in and asking someone to call you back!

      It’s an excellent point about working from home too – how do you determine whether it’s sick day or not? And, if so, is it a full day or a half day? I suppose that depends on how much work the employee is able to carry out from home, but if you’re going to allow it then there really needs to be some sort of guidelines in place so that everyone is clear.

  5. 9 Toni Hunter December 22, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Like Helen, “I don’t do sick” I’ve had just 7 days off in 13 years at George Hay and that includes a pregnancy.
    I keep my immune system boosted with Aloe, Vit C and Echinacea so when my toddler acts like a germ incubator, I can get on with life.
    http://tonihunter.com/2009/08/swine-flu-%e2%80%93-are-you-taking-enough-vitamin-c/
    In my opinion – If you are ill, there’s no point bringing germs to work for others and despite your guilt over work you should be doing your energy would be best spent at home recouperating.
    PS Totally agree with Stephen, self-inflicted illness should not be tolerated, the least they can do is call in to apologise.

    • 10 Wendy December 23, 2009 at 12:32 am

      OMG – 7 days in 13 years, including pregnancy! I think you may be super woman! 😉 Seriously though, your blog post about vitamin C is really interesting – I was unaware of so many of the benefits!

      I agree that there’s no point in bringing your germs into work generally, but sadly it’s not always that black and white. I’ve gone in today where ordinarily I might not. My colleague is on annual leave (along with half the rest of the office) and though they probably would have survived without me it would have been a lot more difficult than usual. Thankfully now I’m on annual leave too though so I plan on sleeping a lot tomorrow!

      Thanks for your comments!

      -Wendy

  6. 11 jdw December 22, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    I wouldn’t say I don’t do ill, but running my own business I reserve it especially for my holidays! Always seems to happen, have a two week break and a cold develops during the first week.

    I agree with Stephen and Toni, for minor illnesses, work from home – which with Microsoft Exchange makes it a doddle. Don’t go into the office to be the hero and splutter all over colleagues to give them the lurgi.

    However, for serious illness, a bit more planning is required to both support the individual concerned through treatment and rehabilitation and also manage the workload.

    • 12 Wendy December 23, 2009 at 12:36 am

      You’re so right about getting ill on your holidays! That always happens to me too – it’s as though you finally get the chance to relax and your body goes bleeeeurrrrgh! stops functioning in survival mode and just lets go!

      Thanks for your comments – it’s nice to see so many people advocating the work from home approach. As you say, there’s microsoft exchange and also services like logmein.com – both of which work a dream!


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Over ten years’ recruitment, employability, HR and sales experience in both the private and public sectors. I've worked in construction recruitment, FMCG headhunting, and in higher education on the employability agenda.

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