published November 20, 2019

You’re Sick! Why 90% of Employees Work Sick & Why It’s Wrong

You’re Sick! Why 90% of Employees Work Sick & Why It’s Wrong
  • Coming to work sick is not only a bad idea, it can hurt the business in a number of ways.
  • Employees may come to work sick for a number of noble reasons—to keep from getting behind, or keeping a deadline they can’t afford to miss—or they many just not want to use their PTO.
  • Employees that come to work sick have a good chance of making other employees sick too.
  • Those working sick will have lower productivity, may make more mistakes, and ultimately result in losses to the company.

Why coming in sick is downright sick

The next Typhoid Mary could be sitting next to you in your workplace today.

For the sick employee sneezing like they’re under a pepper attack, coughing, sniffling, and sitting behind piles of gooey tissues, they’ll also be spreading germs and infecting others in the workplace. Their coughs launch clouds of viruses into the air and over surfaces. (Respiratory viruses are spread primarily through coughing and sneezing.) That employee is also touching doorknobs, copiers, light switches, elevator buttons, keyboards, telephones, conference room tables, the refrigerator, and microwave—and a number of other items with those germ-splattered hands. There are a billion cases in the of the common cold in the U.S. every year.

Touch me not

Everything in the infected person’s proximity can become a point of contagion. Workplaces are an extremely efficient environment for containing germs and viruses—there’s little air circulation, and most often, outside windows can’t be opened. When your employees come to work sick, they are in contact with others and the result is a superhighway for spreading disease. Typically, 20% of Americans will catch the flu during the high season. This study found that a sick worker could spread germs over 40%-60% of frequently-handled surfaces around the office in just 2-4 hours.

90% of employees have come to work sick

This modern day employee tends to work while ill. According to this survey, employees that stay at home while sick are a very rare occurrence—90% of respondents admitted to going into work while sick. In some cities the numbers were even higher: Charlotte, Miami—96%—Austin, Chicago and Cincinnati—93%. Those who said they always go into work sick was 33% and 57% said they go in “sometimes.”

Another survey said 70% of business professional admitted to going into work sick.

Work sick: Why they do it
  • PTO (AKA paid time off): When sick days and vacation time draw from the same pool, any day out sick reduces an employee’s potential vacation days. This can make staff reluctant to “waste” vacation days on the flu—40% said they didn’t want to use sick time being sick. Many companies don’t provide accrued PTO. For those climbing the corporate ladder, time off is rare and rigid deadlines often make working sick necessary.
  • Workload: According to the same survey, 54% of employees claimed they come to work because they have too much work to do. Many professionals are already stressed and afraid they will be subject to negative consequences by managers and executives if they fall behind in their work, miss a deadline, or fail to complete assigned work as required.
  • Working from Home: Another 64% claimed that even if they do stay home from work, they will work remotely; 74% say when they take time off, for any reason, they still think about work; 10% said their bosses would expect them to work despite being sick. One sick Reddit user received this message from their boss: “…as long as you’re breathing, you can use Excel…”
And stress: The stress level in companies, especially for those in middle management and beyond, can be extraordinary. If they’re vying for a promotion or fighting for their job, the stress will only be compounded by missing work from taking a sick day.

Work sick: Why no one should do it

Essentially, they are two primary reasons why the sick shouldn’t come to work: When they’re suffering from a cold or the flu, their productivity suffers. By infecting others, they seriously affect productivity across the whole work team. Coming into work while sick is called presenteeism.
  • Working while sick: Even if employees do come to the office, working while sick makes their work less effective. They won’t be functioning at their usual level of productivity. Illness is distracting. The sick employee’s thinking is muddled and even performing the most mundane tasks can be exhausting. If they are on medication, this can also affect their cognitive thinking and/or motor skills which results in mistakes.
  • Stress as an obstacle to recovery: Bodies need time to recover, including rest and plenty of fluids. Employees should also avoid stress, which is not easy to do in many jobs. Stress can make a typical 3 to 7 day cold go on for 2 weeks. Stress also impacts the immune system—and even stress alone can employees to get sick.
  • Bringing an epidemic: When employees display symptoms they are most contagious, though it’s also possible to infect others in the 1 to 4 days before symptoms appear and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick—20% to 30% of those carrying the influenza virus display no symptoms. As mentioned above, illness can spread quickly in offices and a sick person can deposit infectious material across multiple surfaces quickly.
  • Where it hurts employers: When employees work sick, the loss of productivity, potential for errors, and possible contagion of others results in lost revenue, more employees becoming ill, and the problem compounding. One study found that 71% of health-related lost productive time was caused by employees being compromised by sickness. This compromise brings costs to the economy of $150 billion a year. Forbes says lost productivity costs the U.S. $227 billion a year in both employee absenteeism and presenteeism. Also factor in poor health maintenance and our economy is penalized to the yearly tune of $576 billion.

Sick days at work rules for all

Paid time off (PTO) policies that encourage employees to stay at home when sick enables a culture of support. This will improve your employee’s morale and make them feel more appreciated. The paid sick leave policy needs to be respected by all.

Your company should show staff that it cares about your employees’ well-being. By doing so, you have a better chance of retaining employees for the long-term. A study by the Limeade Institute showed 60% of employees that believed their companies showed care for their staff’s well-being said they planned to stay with the company for 3 or more years. This compared to the only 7% of those that didn’t feel cared for by their employer. Supervisors can also boost workers’ performance by showing compassion, especially when they match their support with clear goals and benchmarks.

Advice to employers:

Executives and managers should encourage employees to stay home when feeling ill. Allowing the employee to recover protects the rest of your staff and results in the sick employee being able to return to work sooner. This minimizes losses to the employer. Your employees are your greatest competitive advantage as a company. When they don’t feel supported, it hurts the bottom line. When they are sick, send them home!

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