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Why going to work sick is a bad idea

Janice Rodden writer headshot By | December 12, 2019
Medically reviewed by Raymond Zakhari, DNP, EdM, NP-BC

Most everyone knows to stay home when they have a stomach bug. The nausea makes moving difficult and remaining in bed the only physical choice. But what if you wake up with the sniffles? Or have a fever, but otherwise feel fine? Then the choice between calling in and going to work sick becomes less clear cut.

It’s hard to know where to draw the line between being a little less productive at your desk (thanks to not feeling great), and when to use that sick time to recuperate in bed. But you’re not doing yourself—or your coworkers—any favors when you head to the office with a virus.

Why you shouldn’t go to work sick

If you’re not feeling well, but on the fence about whether to call out or go in, read this.

1. You won’t get anything done.

Going to work sick, then sitting there just staring into space is so common, there’s actually a word for it. That lost productivity of ill workers trying to persevere is called presenteeism. And its impact is greater than you think. Studies show that there’s greater cost on productivity loss from toughing it out in the office than just staying home to recuperate.

“Having a productive day at work includes maintaining focus and attention, having stamina for up to eight hours, and may require physical exertion if you are a manual laborer,” says Erin Nance, MD. “Being sick affects all of these abilities and could cause computing mistakes, personal injury if you do not have the required strength to physically lift objects, or cause errors in judgment due to mental fatigue.”

2. It spreads germs to your coworkers.

If you have the flu, most people are contagious the day before symptoms appear and up to seven days after getting sick. The virus can spread up to six feet. If it’s a common cold, you can share the infection for as long as you have symptoms. In other words, there’s a good chance you could get your coworkers sick. That certainly isn’t going to make you any friends in the office. When the people you share space with start to feel poorly a few days after you’re coughing and hacking all day long, they won’t think of you with warm feelings. Your manager will be more upset if the entire staff falls ill, than if one person is in bed recovering.

3. It puts others’ health at risk.

While a cold or flu may seem like no big deal, both viruses can cause complications for certain high-risk populations. For people with compromised immunity from medication, age, or pregnancy, these viruses can lead to serious infections like pneumonia and even death. 

It’s not always obvious who might be in danger, so play it safe, and quarantine yourself in your home—especially if you work in an occupation where you interact with lots of people, such as a restaurant or retail store. Even if you take precautions like washing your hands or wearing a mask, there’s no guarantee you won’t jeopardize others.

4. Overexertion weakens your immune system.

If you don’t rest when you’re feeling ill, it will likely take you longer to get better. That prolongs the time you can transmit your sickness to others, and the potential number of days you might be out of work. “Going to work sick absolutely slows down your recovery! The body needs sufficient (if not additional) sleep, low stress, proper nutrients, and lots of liquids to heal and to create energy to fight the ailment that’s afflicting it,” explains Yeral Patel, MD. One study even found that going to work sick is linked to chronic disease, or long-term illness at a later date.

How to know if you should stay home

If you have a fever, or had one in the last 24 hours, you should always stay home, according to the CDC. Wait until your temperature is consistently measuring under 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit without the help of fever-reducers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to return to work. 

If you’re experiencing vomiting or diarrhea, your constant need for the bathroom will make it difficult to get much done (on top of the discomfort of being away from home). And all of the things expelled from your body could spread the sickness to others.

If you have a rash, there’s a good chance it’s contagious, or that your immune system is taxed. It’s best to avoid contact with other people, and get the rest you need. Whether that’s your coworkers, or family. Stay in a place where you don’t risk transmitting it.

“If you have a high fever, especially painful headache, chills, dizziness, shortness of breath, or are lightheaded, you should stay home from work (and should probably see your doctor, too),” says Dr. Patel. “If you’re feeling some mild fatigue, mild cold symptoms or have a mild headache, you’re probably okay reporting for work.”

If you don’t have sick time, or can’t take it, be sure to take steps to minimize the risk of passing your illness along:

  • Wash your hands as much as possible, but especially after coughing or sneezing.
  • Try to avoid people as much as possible.
  • Wipe down anything you touch with an alcohol-based cleanser.
  • Take medications to limit symptoms, like cough suppressants or decongestants.

Then, when you get home, try to get as much rest as possible so you can get better, and be symptom-free, sooner.