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Working When You’re Sick: Just Say No

Are you guilty of going to work when you're sick? It's probably not the right thing to do, even if your work culture perpetuates it. You can be harming your own career by sticking around. Read about how this lady changed her mind and now makes sure to stay away from work when sick.

Before I became self-employed, I was one of those people who always went to work. Didn’t matter if I had bronchitis, strep throat, or newly broken toes (all true stories). Unless I was literally so sick that I couldn’t get out of my bed without puking, I was at work attempting to do my job. And I was an idiot.

I don’t know why our society is so obsessed with work. Maybe it’s the whole bootstrap philosophy or maybe we’re all just desperate to win at something, but in my former workplace, banked sick time and working while sick were badges of honor. “I haven’t taken a sick day since 1999.” “Oh, really? Well I came to work with my small intestine hanging out! Beat that!”

I was just as much a part of that as anyone else. When I left my job, had my employer paid out my accrued sick time (most don’t), it would have been equivalent to nearly two months’ salary. And I had only worked there for 3 years. I don’t get sick very often, but when I think back over those three years, it’s obvious that I should have used much more sick time than I did.

Why Would You Work When You Feel Like Crap?

There are tons of reasons why I used to go to work even though I would have been better off resting at home. Just a few of them:

I didn’t want to get behind on my work. As a therapist, my job wasn’t really something that could wait until I got back. Any time I missed work, appointments had to be rescheduled, clients were inconvenienced, and my coworkers had to fill in for me if there was an emergency. I can’t stand the feeling of putting my responsibilities off on someone else, and I hate trying to catch back up once I’m behind.

I didn’t want people to resent me. We’ve all worked with someone who is sick every five minutes. My former workplace had several of them, and the rest of us were always griping about having to do their work. Knowing how my coworkers and I felt about picking up the slack made me terrified of becoming one of the people they complained about. So I went to work.

I worried about getting seriously sick. Every time I woke up with a cold or other illness, I would think to myself, What if I use up my sick time and get really sick? I need to have enough time to cover me until short-term disability kicks in. So off I would go, telling myself it wasn’t that bad and I’d be okay if I just took some medicine.

I have control issues. I’m really bad about thinking the world will fall apart if I let someone else handle things. Not that I’m perfect or do everything so well, but I just feel like at least if something gets screwed up, I can figure out why and correct it. If someone else does it, I may not know what happened. The thought of someone trying to do my work would keep me awake at night.

Why it’s Dumb to Work When You’re Sick

Do I even need to include this section? I mean, come on people. You know darn well that other people don’t want your germs. You know you don’t get anything done if you work when you’re sick – you just keep taking Dayquil and looking at the clock, waiting for the torture to end. And you know that you prolong your illness by refusing to lie down and rest. Yet I’d venture to say I’m not the only person who has a hard time resting when there’s work to be done.

Wednesday morning I woke up with a cold. Yesterday I felt like I was dying. And if I thought it was hard to take sick time before I quit my job, well, welcome to working from home! I tried to catch up on a few things, but I couldn’t even think straight. I sent emails without the proper attachments. I sent an invoice to the wrong client. I coughed so hard during a Skype call that my client asked if he should call for help. And I finally had to admit to myself, This isn’t working.

I’m learning that my health is not a competition. I work long hours in the high-stress world of owning a small business, and I can’t afford to run myself down to the point of compromising my immune system. Sure, some of my clients get aggravated when there’s a delay, and I bet some of them think I’m either lying or being a wimp. Some probably think, Well, I get sick and *I* don’t take time off. A year ago I would have said the same thing. But at this point in my life, there are more important things to worry about.

Just Say No

No job is worth the risks of going to work when you honestly don’t feel like working. If more people would be brave enough to stay home when they were sick, the stigma of taking sick time for legitimate illnesses might start to go away. Until then, keep in mind that every time you work when you’re sick, you’re potentially infecting others AND contributing to the problem.

Do you go to work when you’re sick? Am I the only one who felt like I couldn’t take time off for fear of repercussions from my employer? Ever catch cooties from a sick coworker?

This post has been sponsored by Jaguar, a company offering pay day loans to get you through tough times such as illnesses or financial emergencies.

About Andrea Whitmer

Andrea is a freelance web developer and mom trying to maintain a sense of humor in an otherwise chaotic world. She blogs in hopes of helping others avoid the same mistakes she made in the past. Join in the discussion here on So Over This, or connect on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, or Google Plus. You can also subscribe to new posts via RSS so you never miss out!


  1. I'm guilty of going to work when I'm sick. I have my own office, so for the most part I can contain myself in there and just keep busy.

  2. I treat sick time like I treat coupons-I have it, so why not use it?

    If you read my posts on office bullying my boss went truly off the deep end when he was SERIOUSLY ill (for a long period of time) and kept coming in to work anyway. And because of all that stress he went ape shit and lost his job.

    That's like a really really rare instance of what can happen when working sick, but I felt it appropriate to list here. Hope you get to feeling better.

  3. It depends, if I think I am OK or can muscle through I will ignore it no matter what it is, but when I get really sick, or really hurt I stay home and cry. I don't know something about me not liking the fact that I can't do everything. Then I get over it, sleep, eat and watch a movie and say forget it. I hate when co-workers and bosses treat you like you went and partied all night and faked it for a hangover or something. Like people aren't supposed to be sick at home, ever. OK, so next time I will come in and puke in the office, no problem. Oh wait I quit my job, because my boss actually made me work from home when I had finals for school, sick and asked for time off. I ended up in the hospital from the stress and quit as soon as I got better.

    My hubby on the other hand NEVER takes a sick day and I mean never. The only time he finally did was when they admitted him to the hospital and told him he couldn't leave. Even then his boss was a big @33 and actually told me he couldn't miss tomorrow. Seriously, my hubby was lying in bed, but because of his boss had problems, he was supposed to some how take out all the needles and monitoring devices, sneak out of the hospital and come to work. I am surprised he didn't make him work from the hospital (almost lost his job because of this, seriously).

  4. I think I've taken one sick day in 12 years, when I had food poisoning and couldn't get more than a foot away from the toilet. I have had to take off when my daughter has been sick. I guess I always think I can deal with my own struggles, but I have to save my time for her because no one will watch a sick child and you really should stay with them when they are ill. People get really mad when you move their appointments around and I understand,but sometimes you just can't work. My husband, on the other hand, is a teacher and has a sub when he's sick. I really wish I had sub sometimes!

  5. Oh, man, this is SO true! I once had bronchitis for two months and still went to work every day. THAT was rough and not fun. I didn't have any benefits of any sort at that job and so I wouldn't be getting paid during the time I wasn't working. I now am waaay better about being okay with not working if I'm really feeling crappy.

  6. Definitely guilty of this. I don't get sick time or vacation time, so I usually just fight through it and do my best. I know it's not the best thing but it's been the way I've grown up (my parents have taken less than 20 sick days in 36 years of business – most after my mom had surgery). For me, we need to record our productive hours in the office where my company can pass along the charge to our customers (essentially billing time). Our goals are "annual," so I guess technically I get "unlimited" sick time and vacation time. As long as I hit my goal by the end of the year, I'm all set. I usually err on the side of extra vacation time and try to power through if I'm sick. I know…

  7. I don't think that stigma exists in Canada. At least not in any of the work places I've ever been at. I've been sent home by supervisors just for SNEEZING in front of them. People here are that concerned about getting sick. I guess the way I look at it is if I take one day to stay home and focus on getting better, I'll recover quicker and thus be more productive at work the rest of the time.

  8. It's funny because I LOATHE when a coworker comes in sick because I don't want to catch it, but I rarely take a sick day unless I'm practically dying. I always try to go into work and pretend it's not as bad as it is.

    Get better!!

  9. Like you I always think to myself what if I need that sick time later on when I'm really sick. It doesn't stop me from using one if I really want to use one, but especially after my crash in July, I know I need to keep banking sick time if I want to keep racing motocross just incase I get injured bad. Right now I'm at around 300 hours built up after 4 1/2 years at my job and it's a pretty good cushion (38 days) but I want to get that somewhere around 90 to feel comfortable.

  10. Until my most recent contract I didn't have separate vacation time from sick time. Since I valued my time off so highly I would rather use it for fun than to be home sick. Luckily for me I am a pretty healthy person and don't get sick often.

    Now that I have sick time I may be more willing not to come to work sick.

  11. When I worked for the State of Missouri, I felt like I couldn't take a sick day unless I was bad enough to be out for a minimum of two days. Whether I worked 4 days or 5, I received 12 new cases on my caseload every week. Department policy said my workgroup couldn't even touch my cases if I missed only one day in a week. By missing two days, my workgroup would then take care of the most pressing issues and I would receive 9 new cases instead of 12 for the week. It was a high-stress environment and most people in the office were on anti-depressants and/or anti-anxiety meds. The best move I ever made was to give my four-week notice before I had even found a new job. Within two weeks I was offered a position at the non-profit where I currently work. I make less money than I did working for the State, but my mental health is greatly improved, and that's worth the reduction in salary. And now, I take a sick day without feeling too guilty about doing it.

  12. Great post Andrea! I relate to so much of what you said and actually did not go to work today because my daughter needed me to stay home with her. We were in the ER yesterday because of an asthma flare up, and I was actually figuring out how I could leave her and run in just for an hour! She is an older teenager, but for goodness sakes she was in the hospital – what was I thinking?!? That's why I have an assistant teacher in the first place!

    It is fascinating that people across the board deal with proper use of sick time at work. As a newly single mom I am grappling with these types of issues in a fresh way. It is good for me to think through these things purposefully, when I am well. This is also a great opportunity for me to come up with a plan of working from home/making use of resources already in place/communicating well with my boss so that I make a decision that is good for me and for the organization. Thanks for helping me do that.

  13. It's tough when you teach and you are sick. To take the day (in my corner of the world) you have to phone around until you can find a substitue (supply) teacher. I've done over 30 calls before I have found someone. Then you have to prep which can be 1 to 2 hours depending on who you get. Less time if they know the school and kids, more time if they do not. Parents can be quite vocal when you are out sick. One of my colleagues battled flu a couple years ago. As one of her students arrived we heard her dad say "She'd better be in there because if there is a sub again, I am going to the district office". lordy. she had the flu, not retail therapy flu.

  14. Budget & the Beach says

    Yeah, there is no badge of honor for bringing the germs to the office. I used to hate it when people did. I didn't take my sick days lightly. I mean if I had a minor cold I came to work, but if I had a fever or just felt totally awful I didn't, but luckily I never was sick that often, unlike this year where I've felt I've had about 100 colds. I think it's just stress. That's a whole new ballgame, because people assume when you work from home that if you are already sick that you can keep working just as easily. But like you said, then weird mistakes happen. Good reminder to just take care of yourself. Feel better!

  15. I have the mindset that because I am not a permanent employee of my organization, I should try to avoid taking sick days as much as possible. I have been guilty of coming into work sick, because we are constantly short staffed due to people who ABUSE using sick days. I felt I needed to help out. But since I do not work in an office, but in a facility that handles food, I realized that not only am I potentially infecting my coworkers, I'm contaminating the food, and possibly infecting the other employees who handle the food.Since then I've smartened up, and call in sick when I actually am sick.

  16. A.
    People get all these sick days and never use them, and like you said, you don't get the money for them after you quit! So if you're sick, take the day off! You'll get better faster and afterall, you deserve a break. Let your body rest and have a break! Sure, you worry about getting really sick later on and needing those days, but that may never happen. And if you don't let yourself get better today, you might actually bring on a really bad sickness!

  17. I hate being sick so I've come up with the "I don't have to work at the office but I'll work from home." It's mostly because I hate get behind. But when I was paid hourly? I was working unless it was really bad. Because you don't get paid if you don't work. Even now if it's not too bad, I'll still come to work but that's because again, I hate getting behind.

  18. I hate when my coworkers come in sick! Because what if i get sick then i have to call in sick?? Right now i don't get sick time or vacation time because im part time so i always come in! Unless it's a true emergency or dealing with the kids i'll take off but even then I consider if i can bring them in. LOL and it's not like i can't catch up with my work i can but im concerned about reputation and money. In my old jobs my bosses KNEW i would always be there and some how i ended up covering for coworkers who always called in "sick" living in hawaii ( i think people play hooky and go to the beach) even coming in on my day off but my boss started to expect that with no apperciation! When i needed time off to find a sitter i got sh*t for it so i was like never again! Before i quit i made sure to use ALL my time & cash it out! 😛 LOL

  19. I am self-employed too; and also sick as I'm writing!

    As an electrician, if I make mistakes I or someone else could get seriously injured or worse, when you're sick it can be extremely difficult to concentrate fully on the task at hand; resulting in poor execution and what's worse it will take longer to do, and most probably have to be re-done!

    To continue working whist sick is about as logical as driving drunk exclaiming how you've got to get home and don't want to lose any money by spending it on a cab; idiotic logic!

  20. Sickperson says

    I’m sick at the moment with some sort of bug :/ not fun. I rarely take a day off work (I work part time) and at the moment doing a lot of over time because we don’t have a manager (I work in retail) on top of that we have a person on holiday and someone who has just quit, that leaves just 3 part timers who do 4-8 hours a week working.

    I hate calling in sick because I feel that they won’t believe me or try and make me come in. And its the guilt they put on you. I’m there thinking, well hold on. Its not my fault my area manager hasn’t got a new manager and new staff, this day isn’t even in my contract to work. GAHH RETAIL ANNOYS ME!

  21. Gemma Smith says

    I’m having a similiar problem right now,whilst doing my morning shift as a home carer for the elderly today,i felt faint and my abdomen started hurting quite a lot,i had to sit down and sip some water for a while,i was tempted to give up and just go home as i was really near to my house but i refused to leave other staff stressed and having to pick up the slack for me halfway through a shift,so i pushed on and then when i finished i got back,had something to eat and more painkillers and realized the pain wasn’t gunna go easily and that it’d be a wise idea to not go in for my evening shift so texted work to let them know about an hour before it was due to start,then slept for a while.when i awoke i had a text from work saying i had left it too late to let them know and that now i was putting strain on everybody else,and they want me in the office on weds morning?? urrrrghh

  22. I didn’t plan on getting sick this morning, but when I called my manager, he asked me if I had gotten someone to cover my shift. I said no, (I don’t generally have my co-workers personal phone numbers -_-) it was unexpected. Then he got huffy and hung up on me. Nausea, stomach cramps, woozy feeling, very slight fever, and zipping my jeans ( yes I get to wear jeans to work) makes the pain worse.

  23. I dont get sick quite often, but there are days when I feel cranky and i just dont want to go to work, considering the fact the I dont get overloaded with work, and also that I get paid sick leaves. So its all good. But the real problem is that whenever I take leave for this reason, my boss tells me to be careful about my attendance, although it doesnt even matter, but since he’s overly professional, and I’m not, we have compatibility issues. Not to mention other employees in rest of the departments take leaves whenever they want and get away happily because their bosses have no problem with this. So it makes me a lil guilty, but then I get over it.

  24. May I add that I broke my right foot on a Friday two weeks ago. Like a fool I was in work on Monday! Monday! People looked at me as if I was crazy. So I called in sick and my boss asked me if I can work at home. So I did for four days. I went into work again today and felt like a fool. When I told my boss I was thinking about using my short term disability, she pointed out but there will be a lot of work soon. I wanted to punch her in the face then. I hardly take sick days and now I have this major setback, you want to come to work, dragging my broke foot along.

  25. My employer advises that if you are sick you are incapable of doing your job and can be summarily disciplined resulting in the sack. Cancer, long term injury, short term illnesses all result inndisciplinary action. Hit by a bus? Not capable of doing job. Goodbye! All perfectly legal…

  26. Although I do not get sick very often, I am guilty of still going to work while sick. It isn’t because I am a control freak, or because I feel guilty about staying home, it is because my employer will not let me stay home due to “lack of coverage”. I was originally hired as an accountant, but cover several other positions (receptionist, mail room clerk, leasing agent, admin assistant, residential services), so if I take a day off, none of these responsibilities are covered, which is why I also have not been approved for vacation in 4 years. If I’m sick, it is assumed that I am faking and just being lazy and have “refused to tend to my responsibilities”. Sometimes we don’t have a choice as to whether or not to come to work when we are ill, we just have to, or risk losing our jobs (which I have been threatened with before due to being late for work due to an emergency room visit, dr.’s note and all).

  27. Merveilles says

    All of this great advice until you find out that what ails you is chronic and cyclical. If you are working then taking time off means that you run out of sick pay very very quickly, and in my case I was told to start using up annual leave, and then what is left… Unpaid leave and finally… Well I have a disability so I’m expecting that they will fire me pretty soon.

    If it’s going to be long term all I can say is learn to manage it as quickly as you can, otherwise you will get thrown on the scrap heap irrespective of how good you are. You will be an easy target for bullying and elimination. My exManager kept asking if my illness was brought on by my ‘inability’ to handle stress – No, it’s down to my body wanting to kill itself thank you very much (but adding stress won’t help – didn’t say the last bit as she’d love to see me dead so she could milk the false tears).

    Current one likes to change deadlines and work from home on a whim, whilst denying me the work from home set up by the occupational health doctors recommendation.

    That’s how you get treated if you become ill and are seen as long term Ill. Oh and don’t forget you’ll no longer be entitled to any personal development or training as you’ll just go off sick and it’s wasted on you…

    So avoid becoming chronically I’ll is all I can say.

    • That’s when you get a lawyer for being treated poorly for being disabled. They’ll change their tune real damn quick.

  28. Is the real reason that we can’t call in sick because we don’t want to look weak? I work when I’m sick but sometimes I’ve a migraine and just can’t. I’m from a different culture but after being here for years, I frankly now feel embarrassed to tell anyone when I’m sick. In the world of work, when sick I feel like a wounded deer surrounded by a pack of wolves. So, if I can avoid it, I don’t tell anyone. Curious if other people tell their boss or colleagues or clients that they’re sick. And what response did you get when you did?

    • I would say that I definitely tell my colleagues when Im ill, but I dont often call off. We shouldnt feel weak when taking a sick day, but I can see your point. It does seem to be the mentality these days.

  29. Your co-workers were whining about people who got sick every 5 minutes (So clearly not as great immune system) and having to do their work, but will come in sick, get everyone else sick and then get mad at responsible people who don’t spread their germs.

    There are so many work places who don’t have the critical thinking skills to think that through, it really baffles me. ‘Let’s infect everyone so people are less productive and shun the people who try not to get others sick by staying home!’

  30. Anitamaria says

    I work in a pharmacy where you’re constantly running around trying to get things done. 2 years ago, I twisted my ankle. I wasn’t able to walk or stand. My co-workers and manager were upset with me and when I had my x rays I had a small fracture. I had to be off for a week, even with an excuse they still wanted me to come in

  31. I used to deal but now I just take the time off. It annoys me when fellow employees beak at me because it’s usually the same people who got me sick in the first place. If I’m coughing hacking or can’t speak I can’t work anyway. I dragged myself into the office with laryngitis last week thinking my voice was getting better but the messages I left sounded like hell and upon hanging up it was no sales call.

    People who go to work are idiots if they are sick

    • Yep…damned if you do, damned if don’t. If you take time off for yourself then you get people talking…and if you come into the office, you still have people squawking about how you will get them sick.

      I agree, take the day off!

  32. Catherine says

    I think the real issue is people taking sick days for fun vs. people taking time off because they are sick. As someone who has had to do my own job plus the job of people who fake illness at work, I can tell you I’m not a fan of that scenario. As for people coming in contagious to work and sneezing all over everything or leaving contagious fecal matter all over the public toilet (stomach flu or influenza), I am also not a fan of that scenario. What I do and it is the required policy for the hospital complex where I work is if I have just a cold and can work just fine, I come in to work but I WEAR A SURGICAL MASK over my mouth and nose everywhere I go. Sure, some dipsticks give me the hairy eyeball over the mask useage but I’m not only serving at my post so someone else doesn’t have to cover my work but I’m also keeping everyone else safe. Yes you CAN have it both ways! If you can still do your job ok (no broken bones, frequent barfing, narcolepsy, etc) as with the common cold, feel free to come in but WEAR A MASK. Problems solved.

  33. I was just written up at work for taking too many days off this year. It’s been a very difficult year, going through a divorce (with a restraining order against him) and having to go to court multiple times this year. This plus the few mornings I needed time to take my daughter and myself to the doctor, the dentist etc. The additional days I took off, I was actually sick. Perhaps from stress, but throwing up, fever – the works. Now I am being punished for it. I was told my performance is excellent, when I am in the office. I am so tired of this lifestyle. I do not need to be punished for the difficult things I am going through above and beyond what I am going through! I really want to work from home, but to get that going requires time and money, both of which I am running short on. How the heck do I break this cycle and get out of this rat race of being punished for my life? Can’t stand it anymore.

  34. Working for a smaller retail company, my health has steadily declined over a span of a year and change. I am anemic and have extreme anxiety, i would go to work, feeling like i was a hop and skip away from collapsing. Many a times, i would be vomiting off the loading dock and 2 minutes later, i was back to working. I like my job, but it’s physically killing me. As a single mother, it’s a difficult decision to make.

  35. When I started my job I was written up for taking two days sick in a row. That was it. No other sickness, just those two days. I was told I couldn’t take any more sickness until after my six month probation was up.

    Now I’m out of probation I get a grand total of four days a year before they start the serious paperwork. They remind us that once you get over eight days they can fire you.

    Of course any sickness results in paperwork and a meeting. I think the worst thing is the interrogation you get from the manager once they get on. You’re supposed to wait around for them to phone you if they aren’t in the office, then they harass you about your symptoms, try to get you to come in anyway. If they fail at that they try to get you to come in later that day. They tell you to book an appointment at the gp right now, and then start on about you calling the pharmacist to see if there’s some magic pill that will make you better.

    Taking a sick day is such a chore I see why people here don’t do it. We’re also treated to a presentation every year telling us not to take sick leave as it loses them money and how being at work while sick will make you better faster.

    I’ve worked with germ ridden kids before this office job, and I’ve been sick more times in this job than any other. Funny that…

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