No doubt at some point you’ve gone into a store or restaurant or bank and noticed the paid help sneezing, sniffling, coughing or otherwise polluting the environs. Perhaps in your very own workplace, colleagues have shown up with a box of tissues and worrisome symptoms on display. The “I’m not contagious” line they offer might lull you into some small comfort, until you find yourself stricken with fever and phlegm two days later.
As it turns out, not as much as you might think. Over a third of all workers in the US are temporary, freelance contractors, or otherwise not on the full-time company payroll, which most likely means they don’t get any benefits.[fn]Anderson, Charlotte Hilton. “Americans Should be Taking More Sick Days.” 6 February 2018. Shape. 21 February 2019. http://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/americans-sick-days[/fn] But even if they’re full-time employees—and here’s a shocker—federal labor laws do not mandate that employees be granted sick time. Many workers actually don’t have any sick days allotted at all, or if they do get sick days, those days aren’t paid. Fortunately, 10 states (Arizona, Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, and Rhode Island) and the District of Columbia do mandate that employees be granted paid sick leave, as do a handful of scattered municipalities.[fn]“Current Sick Day Laws.” Paid Sick Days.org. 21 February 2019. http://www.paidsickdays.org/research-resources/current-sick-days-laws.html#.XG793rh7lPY[/fn] Even so, the situation has left 34.2 million private sector workers without any sick-time coverage, and most of those workers are at the low end of the pay scale. Only half of all service workers are allowed paid sick days. The others risk losing their jobs if they take time off for illness. Remember, service workers include the people who prepare and serve your food when you eat out, creating the perfect opportunity to spread illness.
Surprisingly, the situation isn’t much better in Canada. Although the Canada Labor Code dictates that employers must give sick workers up to 17 weeks off, there’s no mandate that the sick time be paid. That said, 40 percent of Canadian companies do not offer paid sick leave to employees.[fn]Rise Staff. “Personal and Sick Leave: Recommendations and Requirements.” 18 April 2018. Rise. 21 February 2019. http://risepeople.com/blog/personal-sick-time/[/fn]
Unfortunately, having a provision for paid sick leave in the employment contract doesn’t guarantee that workers will stay home when ill. Why? For one thing, workers who are granted sick leave might not have enough days available to cover their entire illness. The average full-time worker in the US earns eight days of paid sick time after a year of service. So, if that worker comes down with the flu in the spring and a cold in November, she might feel compelled to report into work while still infectious. Also, a growing trend in the US is to bundle sick time and vacation time together into a “Paid Time Off” (PTO) category. Employees are granted a set number of PTO days each year, usually less than they would have gotten under the traditional system of separating vacation and sick time. Whereas in the past, employees typically had two weeks of vacation time annually and two weeks of dedicated sick time, now they get allotted days of all-purpose PTO, and most want to save those days for vacation.[fn]Weller, Emily. “The Average Paid Time Off.” Chron. 21 February 2019. http://smallbusiness.chron.com/average-paid-time-off-23899.html[/fn]
Add to that the reality that in many companies, taking sick time is unofficially frowned upon and seen as a sign of weak commitment to the company. Employees fear that if they take sick time, it will cost them the trust and respect of superiors, and possibly make them lose a promotion or even their job. As career expert Alison Greene, who writes the blog “Ask a Manager,” explains, “In certain types of dysfunctional cultures, you can find a dynamic where people are made to feel like slackers if they take sick days and where there’s heavy pressure to come in regardless of whether you’re sick…”
Reflecting this reality, half of all workers in the US over the age of 45 took absolutely no sick time in 2017.[fn]Anderson, Charlotte Hilton. “Americans Should be Taking More Sick Days.” 6 February 2018. Shape. 21 February 2019. http://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/americans-sick-days[/fn] One fifth of those under age 45 also took no sick days—and of those who did, nearly 60 percent took fewer than five days off. Were they saving their sick time for vacation? In most cases, no—astonishingly, they simply weren’t taking any time off at all. Fifty-four-percent of American employees didn’t use up their vacation time in 2017, with most of them using less than half of their allotted time.
Finally, even if an employee elects to stay home from work when sick, chances are he or she won’t find much respite. It’s become commonplace for employees to work at home, no matter how ill. We now have the technology to stay connected to the office even from the sick bed, so instead of resting to recover, employees take the laptop to bed with them, or they sit at their home desk in pajamas, checking work email and attempting to straighten out any crises that have arisen. And even if those in the office are respectful enough to refrain from calling the sick employee at home, they’ll still send emails. And in many office cultures, even though everyone knows the employee is out with the flu, they fully expect those emails to be read and responded to.
What all this adds up to is the perfect formula for spreading illness and delaying recovery from disease. Some types of sickness really do require rest and, sadly, foregoing it might not offer the hoped for career protection. As Dr. Kevin Goist, who teaches clinical medicine at Ohio State University says, “Studies have demonstrated that working while ill limits the quality and efficiency of your work, which could lead to mistakes or longer times to complete projects.”
Even more, people reporting into work while sick pretty much doom their healthy colleagues, particularly those with weak immune systems. Unless the sick workers don masks all day and refuse to touch anything except their own keyboards, their germs will have a party spreading throughout the work area. Everything the sick employee touches becomes contaminated—the stapler, the copy machine, the sink faucet, the door knob, the memo. When sick employees are in service positions—restaurant workers, hotel staff, teachers, maintenance help—the public they serve is at risk. Even those who have strong immune systems might succumb when several sick people report in at once, which is why it’s so common for entire departments to fall sick at the same time.
If you work in an environment that encourages employees to report in if they can stand upright no matter their health, you need to take special precautions, particularly during flu season. Wash your hands often, keep a mask on hand in your desk in case your colleagues start sneezing or coughing, eat well, get enough rest, take a good immune-boosting supplement, and keep plenty of a good antipathogenic formula on hand to pump into your body at the first sign a virus might be thinking of taking up residence.