It’s Enough to Make You Sick

Too many people come to work when they should be home in bed.

Photo illustration of a sick employee contaminating other co-workers around them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by shironosov/iStock/Getty Images.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

With cold and flu season in full swing, you might be surrounded by coughing, sniffly co-workers. Every year around this time my inbox at Ask a Manager fills up with complaints about colleagues who shouldn’t be at work, putting everyone else at risk of getting sick, too.

Sometimes, of course, it’s due to a martyr complex—the feeling that work cannot possibly go on without them, or a notion that they’ll get points for dragging themselves into work while sick.

But frequently, employers’ own policies are why sick people are at their desks instead of at home in bed. Too often, employers don’t give any paid sick leave, or they only offer 3–5 days a year (not enough for many)—and then they’re surprised when an illness runs through the whole office, as this person writes:

I’m the head of a team of 15–20 part-time employees who are paid hourly and do not get benefits or paid leave. It’s flu season, and some of them have been coming to work clearly sick—some to the point that they look like they can barely stay awake. Is there any reason I would not be able to instate a “if you’re sick, you can’t come in” rule to keep the germs from spreading around? I understand these guys want their pay, but when someone brings a disease into the office it spreads like wildfire, and the overall effect is detrimental to both productivity and morale.

Here’s what that kind of policy looks like from the employee side:

When I was younger and had a small child, I worked at a company with no sick time, very stingy vacation time, and penalty points for calling in sick, missing any work at all, or being more than three minutes late …

One day off work meant a 20 percent pay cut that week, and with already low wages, and more bills than paycheck, I simply couldn’t afford it. I worked with the flu, fevers, strep throat, etc. I’d go home and collapse, do the bare minimum at home, and get up the next day and just pray for the weekend. It was bad enough that I had no paid sick days, and I couldn’t use vacation days because they were mandated to be used in July and December during company shutdowns, but on top of that, I got dinged attendance points for being sick. 12 attendance points in a rolling calendar year meant termination. 

If you don’t want people coming to work sick, don’t financially penalize them for staying home. When it’s a choice between paying the rent or staying home when they’re ill, most people will come to work, contagious or not.

Even when employers offer a reasonable amount of sick leave, they sometimes undermine those efforts by lumping sick leave and vacation leave together into one bucket of paid time off. This inevitably results in people coming into work sick because they’d rather save their time off for the beach instead of bed:

I work for a company with an accrued PTO policy that is used for all vacation time and sick leave. … Over the past few weeks, several of my co-workers have come into the office while obviously sick. They spray Lysol and take medicine at their desks instead of taking a day off or working from home. Most recently, a co-worker who sits close to me has come in while coughing, sniffling, and even groaning throughout the day. … Even if I don’t get sick myself (which I still might, as we get further into cold and flu season), it’s very distracting.

And some employers let people take sick leave, but require a doctor’s note if they do—a terrible practice that discourages people from staying home when they’re sick. Minor illnesses like colds and flus don’t usually require a doctor’s intervention, and few people want to drag themselves to a doctor when a couple of days of rest will cure them. (To say nothing of how demanding doctor’s notes infantilizes employees and signals you don’t trust them to make responsible decisions about work and their own health.) Here’s what one person wrote about such an employer:

When I worked fast food, I had to provide a doctor’s note anytime I called in sick. As such, I (and just about everyone else) would come into work sick. We didn’t have sick leave, so going to the doctor was a double whammy when you had to lose a day’s pay, then pay to go see the doctor (actually, it was a triple whammy—going to see the doctor could prolong the illness a little longer, causing you to miss more work).

Then there are employers who make employees justify their use of sick time with intrusive questions:

We recently hired a new manager for our admin/support staff, and in her first team meeting she told us that when calling in sick, “Don’t just say ‘I’m not feeling well.’ I don’t want to hear that.” Apparently she wants a specific reason we are calling in sick.

In an attempt to point out the embarrassing nature of the human body when ill, someone asked, “What happens if we have diarrhea?” to which she replied, “That’s fine. Just tell me.”

This makes me uncomfortable, and I know I’m not the only one in the group that feels this way. Awkward conversations about bodily fluids aside, I have clinical depression, which sometimes means taking a sick day to recharge. This is not something I am comfortable disclosing to this manager, nor do I feel that I should have to. The whole thing feels like we’re expected to justify taking the sick days we’re entitled to.

But even when the reason for a sick day isn’t especially personal, employers should respect employees’ privacy.

Inevitably, when employers’ get too invasive, sometimes people fight back by being a little too enthusiastic about sharing details of their illnesses:

My former boss used to pressure us into telling him what our illness was. He was relentless. Once, I had had a nasty hemorrhoid lanced and was out for a couple of days until the excruciating pain subsided. He kept at it until I just blurted out, “I had a hemorrhoid taken care of, OK?” I was so embarrassed, but he stopped dead in his tracks, turned bright red, and walked away silently. He still made others give their reasons, but never asked me for details about my sicknesses again.

There does appear to be some public appetite for changing the way we handle sick leave: Since Connecticut enacted the first law requiring employers to offer paid sick leave in 2011, nine more states and Washington, D.C. have followed suit. But there’s no law requiring paid sick leave at the federal level—and of course, even in the limited number of states that do protect workers, there will unfortunately still be bosses wanting details about diarrhea and hemorrhoids.