5 ways to tell you’re too sick to go to work


We’re in the midst of cold and flu season, so many of us have probably asked ourselves the same question: “How sick is too sick to go into the office?”

Judging by a 2013 study by office supplier Staples, we’re not being honest with ourselves. According to the study, nearly 80 percent of workers said they went into the office when they’ve felt sick, even when they knew they were likely contagious. A more recent study, conducted by Michigan-based health issues group NSF International, put that number at only 25 percent – better, but still not great.

So, why do we do it? The NSF study found 37 percent of walking petri dishes cited lost wages due to time off work, while another 42 percent said they had too much to do at work to take time to recover.

“Presenteeism,” going to work when you know you really shouldn’t, remains a sticky point for the workforce. You want to get paid. You don’t want to drop the ball. You want to finish that project. Co-workers, however, don’t want to get sick because of you.

In truth, the time missed due to illness remains generally static during the cold and flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Whether you’re out today, or the coworker you infect is out next week, it generally is meaningless to companies. So, doctors advise, you really should stay home if you think you’re too sick to go to work.

Here are a few tips to determine if you should call in sick:

  • You’re going through Kleenex like crazy. If your nose is dripping or you’re coughing up mucus, you’re more likely to be contagious, doctors say. Some people ignore chest congestion if it’s coming out with white mucus, thinking they’ve moved past the contagious stage. That’s not true, generally. Any sputum is bad sputum.
  • You’ve got “eye-boogers.” Red and crusty eyes, especially if you’ve woken up with an eye swollen shut, is a big clue that could be your office’s “patient zero,” experts say. In some cases, that could be conjunctivitis, better known as pinkeye, which is highly contagious and may require antibiotics.
  • You’ve got “the trots” or are throwing up. Diarrhea and vomiting both dehydrate you, so the constant interruptions to sprint to the office bathroom may be the least of your worries. Doctors suggest you stay put, hydrate and try to recover before heading into the office.
  • A temperature accompanied by achy joints. Congratulations: You likely have the flu. When a person gets the flu, white blood cells release proteins called cytokines to fight the infection. It’s these proteins – not the virus – that are responsible for the all-over body pain you feel during the flu. Even if your temperature is only slightly elevated, that ache should be your clue there are bad times ahead.
  • You have no appetite. In itself, a lack of appetite is meaningless. But when it comes with other symptoms, it can be a red flag. When your immune system is set into motion, it causes hormonal changes that affect appetite, doctors say. And if you are sick, not eating only makes you weaker and more susceptible to getting sicker.

The best idea, according to experts, is to play it safe. If you try to “tough it out,” you’re more likely setting yourself up for a longer absence later, so the worries of missing pay or unfinished work could be a bigger problem down the line. Rest up, get well and then get back to work.

Your co-workers will thank you.


too sick for work