The Dangers of Working While Sick

There is a growing awareness of what seems like a pretty obvious fact: bringing your flu or cold to work is a bad idea. If you feel obligated to get your work done no matter what, or work for an employer who doesn’t provide paid sick leave, you may feel compelled to show up regardless of whatever bug ails you. But arriving under the influence of influenza, a bad cold, and the various medications you may be taking to tackle symptoms can backfire badly.

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Why Not Work While Sick?

There are a number of potential pitfalls associated with working while sick. Here are just a few:

Annoying (or infecting) co-workers:  Research shows that most of your co-workers will not be impressed with your dedication to the job. Rather, they’ll be worried about catching what you’ve brought into the office. As you valiantly struggle through your day, juggling tissues and nasal spray, they’ll be obsessing about how to get past you to the lunchroom without breathing any of your air!

The ripple effect: Some things are just too easy to share. If you bring your germs into the office, you’re exposing not only the people you work with, but also their extended network of family, friends and randomly encountered strangers. There’s a reason why quarantine is one of the first rules of disease control.

Producing sub-par work: Let’s face it, trying to concentrate when your head is throbbing, your stomach is queasy, and you’re coughing up pieces of lung tissue is an exercise in futility. There’s a good chance you’ll have to re-do much of what you get done when your head is too stuffed up to really be in the game. What’s worse, if the sub-par work you complete while sick is passed along to others in the organization or to a customer, your reputation may suffer permanent damage.

Why Employers Should Send Sick Workers Home

Unfortunately, some employers expect people to show up and work, unless they’re at death’s door (sometimes even then!). Here are a couple of cautionary notes for those employers who take a heavy-handed approach when staff call in sick.

Forcing an employee to work while sick, or enforcing punitive sanctions when they take legitimate sick days can also backfire on you.

Productivity hit: You may think you’re squeezing the last ounce of productivity out of employees by expecting them to come to work in spite of illness. In reality, the impact of contagious illness in the workplace is much greater than you think. Obviously, people who are sick are less productive because they feel rotten. The people around them at work are also less productive because they’re worried about getting sick too. They waste time and mental energy trying to figure out how to avoid getting sick and how to deal with it if they do get sick. And, when a sick worker spreads infection throughout the office and multiple people become ill, entire departments can become unproductive and may even shut down. Here’s the bottom line for employers—presenteeism (i.e. workers being on the job but, because of illness or other medical conditions, not fully functioning) can cut individual productivity by one-third or more.[1]

Increased health costs: When sickness ripples through the workplace, employer health costs escalate. According to researchers at Cornell University, employees working while sick could account for up to 60% of corporate health costs.[2]

Infected customers: Reduced productivity and increased costs are just the beginning. What if your sick employees start infecting your customers? The most obvious example of this would be food workers who work while sick. This industry study shows that 12% of food workers surveyed have worked when they were ill with highly contagious symptoms. In many cases, these workers are given little or no choice about working while sick. In a recent related example, a news release was distributed warning all patrons of a busy small town restaurant to immediately get vaccinated for Hepatitis A, since they may have been exposed to the virus by an infected worker. Aside from potential liability issues that could arise if a worker is compelled to work while sick and then infects a customer; think about the damage it would do to customer loyalty and your brand if it became known that you knowingly exposed customers to such a risk.

Workplace culture: Managers who expect people to push through, no matter how sick they may be, are unfairly exposing other employees and their extended networks; demonstrating a lack of concern for the well-being of staff. This policy will generate a reciprocal lack of concern among staff for the well-being of the company and will ultimately mold your workplace culture. It’s generally accepted that:  “Employees who feel valued and appreciated by their leaders are infinitely more likely to go above and beyond for the company and hold themselves accountable…”[3] If you’re striving for a high-performance culture, expecting people to work while sick will not help you achieve it.

There may be times when a need is urgent or a deadline is immutable and the only person who can get the work done happens to be sick. In such circumstances, you may have no choice but to do what must be done while taking precautions to limit exposure. But most of the time, it just makes sense to acknowledge—working while sick is a bad idea.


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[1] Harvard Business Review. Presenteeism: at work but out of it.

[2] Lynne Turner. Coping with ‘Presenteeism’ Those Who Come to Work Sick Drain People, Profits, and Productivity.

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