Working Remotely While Sick

As I described in Monday’s blog post, there are many good reasons why coming to work with a severe cold or the flu is a bad idea. But, I found myself wondering whether the same rationale applies to employees who work remotely?

Photo by AHLN, Flickr

So here are each of the reasons listed in Monday’s post as they would apply (or not) to employees who work away from the primary workplace.

Annoying (or infecting) co-workers: If you don’t come into the office, chances are you won’t infect fellow employees if you choose to (or have to) work while sick. But you might still annoy them—especially if being sick impacts the quality of your work or your ability to collaborate and respond effectively. Besides, some of your co-workers suspect you spend the day in your pajamas sipping cocoa anyway, so calling in sick might just push them over the edge.

The ripple effect: Co-workers are not the only people susceptible to contagion. While you may not be exposing your co-workers and everyone in their networks, you’ll still be the resident Typhoid Mary if you show up sick at your preferred co-working space or the local coffee shop. Working exclusively from home may serve as an effective self-imposed quarantine, preventing you from sharing those pesky germs. And, as a remote worker, you have much more control over the number of disease ripples you share. Unless your employer requires you to show up at a designated co-working space, in which case the ripple effect is back at high tide.

Producing sub-par work: This reason is just as valid for remote workers as it is for those who congregate in a specific workplace. Whether you work from home, from Starbucks or at head office, trying to concentrate when you’re sick is often a waste of time and energy. Producing inferior work because your brain is befuddled by illness or medication is never a great career move.

Should Employers Expect Telecommuters to Work While Sick?

Employers who expect sick employees to show up and buckle down are even more likely to expect remote workers to suck it up and work through illness. So how do cautionary notes for employers apply when a sick employee works remotely? Can forcing remote employees to work while sick (or punishing them for taking sick days) still backfire?

Productivity hit: For a remote worker, the productivity hit is less likely to impact co-workers, but employers can still expect a significant drop in individual productivity (one –third or more[1]) if an employee continues to work while sick.

Increased health costs: When remote workers continue working through illness, it may lead to increased corporate health costs for that individual due to longer recovery times, but it would not impact these costs to the same degree as it does in a crowded office environment. Containing infectious illness reduces its impact. In addition, any spread of disease through co-working spaces or public areas would not directly impact health costs for the employer (although it still hits society’s bottom line!).

Infected customers: If a remote worker continues to have contact with customers, this risk is still relevant. If the employee is compelled to work while sick and then infects customers, a company’s brand could still sustain damage if it became known that customers were knowingly exposed to such a risk. If, however, a remote worker does not have any contact with customers, employers can take this risk out of the equation.

Workplace culture: When it comes to the culture of an organization, it’s already a challenge to help remote workers feel included. Anything that leads to dissatisfaction and disengagement among on-site workers will typically have an even greater impact on remote workers who often already feel isolated. Expecting people to work while sick, in the office or at home, will definitely not enhance corporate culture.

In the final analysis, remote workers are more likely to be expected to work while sick, since many of the dangers associated with doing so are reduced when work is conducted away from the office. For those who work from home, pulling away from the work to rest and recover from illness can be difficult. While other people call in sick and stay home, the remote worker is often already at home and may not know where to draw the line when feeling ill. The reactions of co-workers and managers can also be more complicated when someone who works from home takes a sick day.

Whatever a company’s policy regarding sick days, and whether people work at home or in the office, expecting employees to be productive and focused when they’re battling a bug is unrealistic and definitely doesn’t foster organizational health.


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

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