Image: Woman blowing nose
If you're sick but still feel up to working, do it from home. Your co-workers will appreciate you not sharing your germs with them, and you'll still be able to chip away at your long list of tasks.
updated 2/10/2009 6:36:23 PM ET 2009-02-10T23:36:23

Hacking. Coughing. Sneezing. Sometimes the workplace sounds less like an office and more like a hospital ward, especially now that we're at the height of cold and flu season.

If you're not feeling great, do yourself and your co-workers a favor: Call in sick. You'll likely get better faster and save your employer money.

Yes, there's a financial price to coming to work ill. It's called presenteeism, and it costs employers $180 billion annually, according to a 2007 study by the Society for Human Resources Management. That's more than employers shell out for employee absenteeism, which costs only $118 billion a year.

Sick employees don't just affect their own work; they infect co-workers who then need to take time off themselves. (Or who come in sick and spread the germs further.)

Most people do get paid time off. Some 57 percent of all private businesses offer paid sick leave, according to a 2007 report from the Department of Labor. Still, there's a natural worry that if you don't go in, the work won't get done, or it will pile up so high you'll never be able to get through it all. That's especially true these days, when it seems everyone is doing more work with less resources.

"People don't want to stay home and add to their co-workers' workloads just because they've got the sniffles," says Michael Smith, a physician who is chief medical editor for "In the end it hurts more then it helps."

Yes, if it's really nothing more than sniffles, go on in. To be safe, wash your hands more often, don't touch anyone else's phone or keyboard and always cough or sneeze into a tissue.

Ideally, though, with any true cold, even just a minor one, you should work from home, Smith says. Definitely call in sick, he adds, if you've got a stuffed nose, cough, chest congestion or are throwing up. And never go into the office with a fever.

"If you've got any inkling of being contagious, it's just not fair to go in," says Wendy Nice Barnes, vice president of human resources at She says people showing up at work sick are a much bigger concern than people missing work when they're not really ill.

But it's not only about being kind to your co-workers. "Staying home a day or two may shorten the illness," Smith points out.

Perhaps you'll feel better taking the day off if you know how many sick and personal days you have annually. When you call in sick, try to reach your manager directly by phone. Explain that you're not feeling well and you don't want to expose everyone else in the office to whatever you've got.

Since not everybody is so considerate, do what you can to stay healthy. Get a flu shot. Many employers offer them on-site for free or for less than at a doctor's office. Keep antibacterial soap handy for washing your hands, especially after interacting with a sick co-worker.

"The most common way to get a cold or the flu is by touching something contaminated by someone infected," Smith says. "It's not someone sneezing or coughing in your face. It's them contaminating a phone."

Employers should do their part, too. The most significant action they can take is to offer subsidized flu shots, says Joyce Maroney, director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos, a provider of workforce management software. Also, it might seem corny, she says, but it's good to have signs up in public places about hygiene and safety information.

Above all, simply don't feel guilty about calling in sick.

© 2012


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