Should you go to work when you're ill?

Productivity-sapping 'presenteeism' is on the rise - but that doesn't mean we should all call in sick at the first sign of a sniffle.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 09 Jun 2016

Absenteeism has traditionally been a big problem for many employers. When people repeatedly phone in sick it can leave gaps in the workforce, forcing everyone else to strain harder to get everything done. But in recent years lots of managers and HR bods have been raising concerns about so-called ‘presenteeism’ – workers coming in when they’re genuinely unwell.

A survey for PushDoctor (an online service that connects people with doctors) found that 86% of workers had gone to work with an infectious illness (which obviously includes the common cold...) and 24% claimed to be under pressure to show up at work when ill. While having all your staff show up for work is theoretically a good thing, presenteeism isn’t without its problems.

‘People are not going to feel engaged and productive in the long-term if they feel under pressure to show up for work when unwell,’ says Rachel Suff, a policy adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR people. ‘It can also be a barrier to a proper recovery.’

A separate study by AXA PPP healthcare found that the most common reasons for showing up while sick were a heavy workload, feeling guilty about the impact on one’s colleagues and employer, and pressure from their boss or workmates.

Read more: Why wellness at work may not be healthy

Of course people shouldn’t feel like they have to work when they’re ill. We’re all entitled to R&R when we’re sick, and you’ll win yourself no friends by passing on your bout of gastric flu. But in practice life isn’t always so simple. Working from home might be an option, but if you’re on the verge of closing a sale at that day’s meeting or you’re new in the job and keen to make an impression reputation then it’s totally understandable that you wouldn’t want to stay in bed.  

Tech entrepreneur and investor Tej Kohli says that while people shouldn’t feel they will get in trouble by taking time off, ‘timing...can be crucial. If an illness strikes in the middle of an important negotiation process, it can cause difficulties. In these cases I would expect [my team] to use their best judgment, and only take time off it is completely necessary.’  

But it’s important not to keep this up ad infinitum. Going in sick on the odd day when your presence is really important is fine. Refusing to take time off every time you are ill is not. ‘You do neither yourself, nor your company any favours by running yourself into the ground for the sake of a few short term wins,’ says Nick Goldberg, managing director of Lee Hecht Harrison | Penna.  

Ultimately it’s something you have to judge for yourself. ‘Whether or not somebody comes in boils down completely to who that individual is as a person,’ adds Monica Karpinski, who manages Curated Digital’s content team. ‘At the end of the day, it’s down to employees to understand and respect their bodies, abilities and responsibilities and do what they know is best.’

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