Calling the boss for a sick day is never fun, but there are times when you’re simply too sick to work.
Deciding that you are too sick to work is, for many people, wrenching. You probably could tough out a bad cold, but you don’t want to expose your co-workers and the public to a contagious illness. (Plus, no one wants to be the person in the office who can’t stop coughing!)
“Going to work means we get paid, the workplace is staffed, your co-workers don’t have more to do,” says Thomas Fekete, MD, section chief of infectious diseases at Temple University in Philadelphia. “Staying home may mean you, don’t get paid, or you have to use sick time. It’s a tough call.”
To help you resolve your dilemma, here are five ways to tell if you’re too sick to work and should stay home instead:
1. You have a contagious illness. As rotten as you feel right now, think about how bad you’ll feel if you do go to work and everyone else gets whatever you have, too. The problem, Dr. Fekete says, is that most of us are wrong about when to stay home. “The most contagious period is at the beginning, before you get really sick,” he says. So, if you go to bed feeling slightly sick, and wake up feeling a bit under the weather, that’s the day to stay home. The following days, when you actually will feel sicker, are days when you are less likely to share your contagious illness. Of course, if you work with vulnerable populations, such as hospitalized patients, elderly people, young children, or people with impaired immune systems, you may need to review your employer’s policies about when you can go back to work. And while you’re staying home, Fekete advises steering clear of other germy public situations, such as the grocery store, library, or movie theatre.
2. You’re worse than you think. “Most of us are sicker than we think we are,” says Fekete. The problem, again, is the first 6 to 12 hours, when your symptoms can get markedly worse. This means that by the time you start to feel really rotten or have bad symptoms, you might already be at work. One of the measures of health we all look at is fever, but that actually can be relatively easily managed with medication, says Fekete, as can the aches and pains that go with it. But if your fever is accompanied by weakness and confusion, or diarrhea or vomiting you can’t control, stay home. Fekete recommends making the call yourself on day one, but if you think you need to stay home for a second day, call your doctor for advice.
3. Your workplace isn’t “sick friendly.” Most people really can power through at work without making their cold or flu worse or getting other people sick — if they have the right accommodations. But you have to consider where you work. Some factors that might make it worth your while to stay home, even if you think you could get to the end of the day, include:
- Limited or tightly controlled access to a bathroom during the day
- Little or no ability to wash your hands often or cleanly dispose of facial tissue after you sneeze or wipe your nose
- Nowhere to store or use any medication you need
- Working directly with the public or with food that goes to the public — it would be unprofessional to sneeze, cough, and sniffle under these circumstances
- You have to make life or death decisions (like a surgeon or an airplane pilot)
- You work outside in the heat or in a strenuous job, like construction, and you don’t have the option of doing a more low-key task for a day or two
4. Your medications interfere with your job. This is an instance where you have to know yourself. Some people can take a cold or flu medication without side effects while others find themselves struggling with daytime sleepiness and foggy thinking. Antihistamines are particularly likely to cause this response, as are any medications that advertise their ability to help you sleep at night. Even if you’re just foggy-headed, “that’s not the day you want to make the company budget or closing arguments at court,” says Fekete. One option is to go to work and operate on a reduced schedule.
5. Your kids are getting sick. “Kids staying home is, on average, better for society because kids are much better at transmitting these things among themselves,” Fekete says. So if you are under the weather and you suspect they are too, stay home with the kids and take your entire family out of the contagious illness loop, at least for one day. Then, once you all get through the early day or two of an illness, you can probably all get back to your routines, even if you still aren’t feeling 100 percent.
Finally, says Fekete, it’s important to participate in and advocate for a supportive work environment. Your co-workers will have to pick up the slack when you are out, so do the same for them, without complaining or second-guessing how sick they were. Look into whether your employer has a forgiving policy toward sick days, and advocate for change if there isn’t one.
Reviewed by Pat F. Bass, III, MD, MPH