02/12/2013 11:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Achoo!' Should You Go to Work When You're Sick?


The author, photographed by Kristen Bancroft

You buy your morning paper, and the fellow who sells it to you sneezes into his hand -- the same hand he then uses to give you your change. At the counter of your favorite coffee shop, the barista wipes her red and runny nose, grabs a paper cup, and prepares your grande latte. At the office, a colleague approaches you, shakes your hand, and then complains about the nasty cold he has.

The next day, you awaken with a sore throat and feel progressively worse as the day goes on. You don't sleep well that night, because somehow you've just come down with a cold. Hmm. Might there be a connection between the first series of events and the second?

And now that you're sick, should you go to work or not? It's tempting to stay home, watch TV, and sleep a lot, but for many people this seems too self-indulgent. Perhaps you feel you're indispensable, or that taking some time off will mean coming back to even more work. Or perhaps you're in a situation where you literally can't afford to miss a day or two at the office.

In spite of the compelling reasons why we think we ought to go to work while sick with a cold or the flu, or at least do our work at home, there are even stronger reasons why it is ethically unintelligent to do so.

Here's why: Illnesses like the cold and flu can be spread by physical contact. When we're sick, the people with whom we come into physical contact have a significantly increased risk of coming down with the illness, according to virologists, epidemiologists, and other experts. There is a causal relationship between being sick with a cold or the flu and making others sick by touching them directly or handling an object that they soon touch themselves.

Unfair, Fourfold
In the workplace, this correlation has four important implications, all of which are related to the ethical principle of fairness. First, whether our job consists of providing goods or services, we cannot meet the needs of clients well if we're not feeling well. Who among us can perform to the best of our abilities if we're stumbling around with a fever, coughing up a storm, or sneezing and blowing our noses constantly?

It may be a mark of good character that we want to be of service to others even when we're under the weather, but we are simply not being fair to clients if we can't do our jobs adequately, no matter what our intentions are.

Second, by increasing the likelihood that we'll infect co-workers, we are not being fair to fellow employees when we go to work sick. You would understandably be upset to realize that the cold or flu you are now nursing could have been avoided if a colleague had stayed home the day he or she came into contact with you. Won't the same be true in reverse? You may feel as though you're letting people down or making work for others if you don't drag yourself into the office, but your colleagues are more likely to be upset if you give them your cold or flu than if you take some time off.

Since everything we do has a ripple effect, the illness you pass along to a co-worker may be then passed along to your co-worker's family, making your decision to come to work sick even more troubling. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that over 200,000 people in the United States are hospitalized each year because of flu-related complications. It's one thing to inconvenience co-workers by giving them your cold. It's quite another thing, medically and ethically, to pose a serious health risk to others by passing along the influenza virus or to endanger yourself by not giving yourself the chance to get better.

Third, going to work sick is unfair to your employer. According to a report published in The New York Times in 2006, researchers at Cornell University found that ill workers on the job could account for up to 60 percent of corporate health costs. The phrase "presenteeism" speaks to the financial downside of overly motivated workers who bring their upper respiratory illnesses to work with them.

Finally, your decision to come to work sick is unfair to yourself. No matter what the policy of your employer may be, when you have a cold or the flu you deserve time off to get better. This means staying at home, but not to do work. Trying to replicate a day in the office from your sickbed may prevent you from making others sick, but it won't do much to hasten your recovery. Real, meaningful convalescence sleeping as much as you can, taking it easy when awake, drinking plenty of water, and taking appropriate medicines.

It is just as wrong for your boss to demand or expect that you work while sick as it is for you to feel compelled to do so. Being ethically intelligent isn't just about treating others with kindness, compassion, and respect. It's also about regarding ourselves this way, even (or especially) when we don't feel well.

But What If...?
Some will find it especially hard to do what I am suggesting here. The single parent whose employer does not offer sick days, the worker whose job is on a commission-only basis, and the employee whose skills are so specialized that a replacement is not readily available all seem to have stronger reasons than most to trudge in to work with a lingering cold or flu. I am not convinced, however, that even folks in these pressing situations have no viable alternative.

A good manager will understand that it is in his or her own interest not to have a cold- or flu-ridden employee on the job, and finding a temporary replacement or simply putting the job on hold for the moment may be more feasible than the stricken worker wants to admit. If we do good work when we're well, chances are a decent boss will find a way to bridge the gap during those times when we're sick. Isn't it worth asking the boss for a break?

Ultimately, of course, presenteeism is a management issue, and ethically intelligent managers will not allow an employee to come to work sick; instead, he or she will insist that a sick person go home. (And managers, the same standard applies to you.) It's critical that employers create cultures where employees aren't afraid to take time off when they are ill. It may be justifiable to fire a person who consistently slacks off and doesn't take the job seriously; it is ethically outrageous, however, to make employees so fearful of losing their jobs that they won't take time off, even when they have the legitimate complaint of being sick.

Stay Home. Do Good. Get Well
Ethical intelligence means, in part, making smart choices when you feel the onset of a cold or flu. Your company, clients, and co-workers will be grateful for your decision to skip an unproductive, sneeze-filled day at the office. Let's face it: so will you!

Bottom line: You might feel that you're letting the team -- or yourself -- down, but there are lots of reasons not to work if you're not up to it.

This piece was originally published in a slightly different form in Bloomberg Businessweek Online.

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