Don’t Go to Work Sick

You will recover more quickly resting at home and return to work ready for an honest day's work
March 13, 2020 Updated: March 26, 2020

Presenteeism is the term that describes when you’re present at work but sick and unproductive and should be home recuperating.

A loss of productivity is possible anytime you’re in pain or don’t feel well. You may be present in body but you’re absent in mind and spirit. Yet going to work sick has become so widespread, costly, and concerning to businesses that the term presenteeism was created to describe it.

Returning to work prematurely from an illness can prolong your sickness, infect others, perpetuate your exhaustion, reduce your efficiency, and provoke your irritability. And because your mind isn’t in the game, the inability to concentrate can contribute to accidents.

In an attempt to get a handle on presenteeism, researchers have been gathering data to formulate procedures for managing ill and recovering employees. They’re identifying the recovery times associated with common illnesses and the cost of diminished productivity associated with the flu, allergies, arthritis, back pain, migraine headaches, depression, and irritable bowel syndrome.

What the researchers are finding out is that the inability to function due to presenteeism may be three times more costly to a business than absenteeism. At least you know when someone’s absent, but you can’t always tell when they’re not on the job due to presenteeism.

In a report titled the American Productivity Audit, the Center for Health Research & Rural Advocacy found that presenteeism could be costing American businesses over $150 billion dollars annually.

In short, don’t go back to work until you’re well enough to deliver a consistently good performance.

Here is your prescription.

First and foremost—follow your doctor’s orders. Get a written excuse to be absent from work and manage your illness to the best of your ability so you can return to your duties sooner than later.

Explore all options available to you for preventing future illnesses. Participate in your employer’s wellness programs. Eat well, get good rest, routinely exercise, manage your stress, and take your earned vacations. And stay away from people with infectious illnesses.

Do an honest self-evaluation as to why you feel motivated to return to work sooner than you should. If this is due to an unsympathetic boss, contact your HR representative and give them your doctor’s excuse and a link to this article.

If the decision to return to work prematurely is motivated by fear, worry, guilt, shame, or anxiety, then it’s up to you to down-regulate those unhelpful emotions by assigning a different meaning to your situation. Think differently.

Those unwanted emotions are created by allowing yourself to think habitually about all the things you can’t control. For example:

  • My supervisor and management will think I’m weak or disloyal.
  • I’ll lose my job if I don’t show up for work.
  • This will destroy my performance evaluation and potential for promotion.
  • They’ll hire someone to take my job before I’m able to return.
  • My coworkers will take over my projects.
  • I’m going to lose out on some of the upcoming projects I wanted.

If you don’t replace these negative thoughts with non-negative ones, the unhelpful emotions you unintentionally create have the potential of exacerbating your illness and further prolonging your return to work.

The better approach is to take control of what you can, which is your ability to think intentionally to create helpful emotions. Rather than dwell on the uncertainties of not returning to work, think about healing faster to create the helpful emotions of peace, hope, optimism, courage, and confidence. Keep in mind the old saying that there’s nothing more important than your health.

A few years ago, I had a bout with the flu and was eager to get back to work. During a follow-up visit with my doctor, he insisted that I rest another two days at home. He could tell that I was frustrated by this so he said if I didn’t care enough about my health then I should find another doctor, that he prefers to treat patients who follow his orders.

Now think about what I was doing in my doctor’s office. I was experiencing the early symptoms of presenteeism. My sick body was present in his office while my mind and spirit were still on the job. Had he not insisted I stay home, I would have gone to work.

My doctor made it okay for me to give myself permission to be sick and recuperate without guilt. Then by imposing guilt on me, he motivated my cooperation in bringing my mind back to where it should be in helping to heal my body. Only then did I go to work.

Jeff Garton is a Milwaukee-based author, certified career coach, and former HR executive and training provider. He holds an MA degree in organizational communication and public personnel administration. He is the originator of the concept and instruction of career contentment. Twitter: @ccgarton