Most Workers Come to Work When Feeling Sick

The staffing firm OfficeTeam has an interesting infographic showing how often people go into work when they’re ill. It’s not stated, but implied that “go into work” means “go into the office to work.” My subjective experience matches what the small OfficeTeam study revealed. Far too many people come into the office to work when, in the interests of the health of their co-workers, it would be better they stayed home.

I’ve heard many excuses for why people do this. “It’s just a head cold.”, “I’m past the contagious phase.”, “There’s too much important work to get done this week.”, “I don’t want to get behind any further than I already am.” The list is endless. When my career advanced to the point I needed to manage people, I learned more of what was motivating some of these excuses. They included things like home life was so miserable that the employee would rather come into the office sick than stay at home. There was also a perverse incentive in play at work environments that allotted employees a bulk quantity of paid time off for use as vacation and sick time. Want a longer vacation? Work sick rather than take a “vacation” day to recoup and prevent the spread illnesses to co-workers. As a manager, I frequently used my authority to send people home when they came in sick.

Viewed from another perspective, the OfficeTeam study reveals an often unstated value to telecommuting. When one at least has the option to work remotely and their productivity is not compromised by that option, they can organize their work around such things as seasonal illness much more effectively and prevent the spread of illness to co-workers. Personally, I took paid time off for sick days. I found it much easier to “catch up” when I felt better than try to remain productive when sick. In fact, the work that was done while ill was usually of poor quality and needed to be reworked later. However, when feeling ill while working remote, I would put in a day or two of light work and make up the slack later when I felt better, even if that make-up time was on the weekend.

In this type of scenario and given the long view, productivity is likely to be consistent and of high quality. Furthermore, containing the illness and preventing the spread to other members of the work team helps maintain organizational productivity. A topic for another day is: How do you measure productivity in a remote work force so that it can be evaluated for consistency, quality, and other such metrics?