strict “don’t come in sick” policy makes me feel like a slacker

A reader writes:

I work for a very small company (less than 20 people work with me, closer to 15). The president of the company has a rather strict sick day policy which is: “If you feel under the weather, even just a bit, don’t come in.” Each person in the office has a specific task and getting everyone sick is not an option. If someone is out, there is no one to take over that person’s work.

While I understand the policy, I feel silly calling in with a cough, but I know that if I go in I could be sent home; the job is over an hour commute for me, so coming in just to be told to turn around and go home is a yucky option.

Anyhow, due to this policy, I have taken three or four sick days in the past two months. I feel that this is a lot. Only one of them is what I would consider an actual sick day (stomach flu) and the others were preemptive things (runny nose/ slight cough/ didn’t want to be sent home). I wasn’t partying on these days, I really did feel bleh, but at any other job I would have gone in and suffered through it.

My question is, can my boss come down on me for missing so often when I am just following the rules? Do I look like a slacker when I call in sick that often? Even when call in sick, I do get some work done from home.

It seems to me that the policy is very clear — if you feel even slightly sick, don’t come in, which is what you’ve been doing. However, if you’re feeling uncertain about it, why not just ask your boss? Say something like, “Can I ask you about our sick day policy? I want to make sure I’m not taking sick days when I shouldn’t be. At past jobs, I would have come in to work if I was just slightly under the weather, like with a runny nose or slight cough, as long as I didn’t have a full-blown illness. I want to make sure that I’m not misunderstanding the policy and that you really do want us to stay home in those situations.”

Listen to the answer and believe it, unless you’re ever given reason to doubt its sincerity.

And if your job can be done from home, ask if it’s possible to simply work from home those days rather than taking a sick day. (It sounds like you’ve done some work on those days, but why not just telework the whole day if it’s an option?)

Given the frustration of having to work next to sneezing, coughing, germy people, it actually sounds like a great policy, as long as it’s sincere and people aren’t penalized for using it.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Janet*

    I actually love this policy. I know it makes you feel like a slacker but think of it as making you keep a high priority on your health and the health of others around you. My work combines our sick time with the rest of our vacation time into one big Paid Time Off pool so no one ever takes sick days because they don’t want to dip into their vacation pool. It’s pretty germy and miserable in the winter.

  2. JfC*

    The only problem I would see with that is allergies. In the summer time, I often get what appear to be cold symptoms (runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes), but are really the results of allergies. I try to control them as best I can with allergy meds, but sometimes I do come in showing them. I would hate to get turned around for something that’s not contagious.

    1. Anonymous 2Day*

      I would be endlessly grateful for a job with extra PTO, but if I was required to stay home when symptomatic because of chronic, non-contageous conditions, I’d be out quite often, and fear losing my job. I’m sure the boss would understand the difference between chronic and acute illness, but I’d be afraid of it fostering ill will among co-workers and/or having my medical history come up. Of course, I have worked at companies that take sick leave to the other extreme – like my first job in my current field, where you could NOT take leave of any kind for 365 days after date of hire, and if you needed to call off sick, they’d dock your pay. (It was the dot-com recession, and I had no experience in this new field, so I had to take what I could get!)

      Or my last job, where the CTO’s poorly scheduled, make-or-break software shipment meant every department head came in with symptoms of H1N1 and didn’t realize it, because we mistook those symptoms for stress and sleep deprivation. We didn’t mean to, and luckily, the guys who brought H1N1 to the office and also had kids under 16 in the house had gotten their kids vaccinated. But obviously, this could have been a bad scene, since that flu was making the news for being lethal in the under-16 crowd. The dad of a teenager was the first one with symptoms, and he felt soooo bad for exposing us without knowing it, but that thing spread quickly, and within 48 hours, we’d all been exposed. Most of us got off easy because the symptoms of that flu were much milder than a typical flu in people over 25, but I hate to think what could have happened.

    2. Another Emily*

      Since allergies are not contagious, surely they wouldn’t send someone home who can’t make anyone ill. It seems like the motivation for this policy is to keep people well, not just to have sneezers out of the office.

  3. Malissa*

    Where I work we have a similar policy. It’s not formal, but we’ve all suffered through what’s been passed around the office enough that we run people out of the office if they are sick. Of course we have a generous sick leave policy to go along with this.
    Most people can tell the difference between allergies and a cold, so I wouldn’t worry about that.
    One of the things I did this year was get a laptop that can go home with people for when they are only slightly sick or have sick kids to take care of. Then they can still get essential work functions done and not slow anybody else down. Maybe the OP can ask for a similar concession?

  4. Kimberly*

    Yikes if I worked there – I would never work. What about people with allergies. I had an attack June 7th – and have had an asthma/allergy cough since then. It started out strong enough to literally knock me off my feet. Now it is a coughing fit every couple of hours. If I took a cough suppressant I would end up with a serious lung infection. The cough keeps me from getting sick by clearing out my lungs.

    1. dmc*

      Ditto to this question. In addition to AAM’s good advice about talking to the boss, try to take notice of what your coworkers are doing too. Do they come in with minor sniffles? Are others out as frequently as you? If the answers are no and yes respectively, I wouldn’t worry about what you’re doing. If it seems like you’re the outlier, then talking to your boss is definitely warranted, though some people just get sick less frequently and you might work with a lot of naturally healthy people.

  5. Lindsay H.*

    What I find funny/ironic about this situation is that it is supposed to be a preemptive strike against losing non-interchangeable members of the workflow chain due to an illness, but by making someone stay home you’re doing the exact same thing. Essentially, what’s the difference between not having someone there because they have a killer cold rather than they’re feeling kind of blech-y? (Yes, I realize pushing through early symptoms can knock someone down for the count longer. Just a minor observation.)

    1. Anonymous*

      One example from a couple of years ago: One co worker came in with a cold. They were middle-level bad and had “urgent” stuff to do before the weekend.

      The following week three or four coworkers were off with something similar and we were running round trying to cover essential day to day duties due to it.

      For the next month we lost another major member of staff who ended up with a throat infection and couldn’t work at all due to sickness. Another two had on and off again illness and struggled to do full duties and full days due to left over ear infections for a couple of weeks.

      If the original coworker had stayed off or worked from home we would have lost 1. Due to them coming in we lost 3-4 workers for a week and 2-3 of those were disrupted for nearly a month.

      1. Anonymous*

        (assumption made above that people didn’t get it elsewhere or already have the bugs though.)

        1. Lindsay H.*

          I had two college friends who got head lice from the movie theater in town. I had a co-worker get pink eye from zoning (touching) items on the sales floor while working at Target.

          Point: You can get germs from anyone; not just co-workers.

          1. Anonymous 2Day*

            Bedbugs, too. Huge problem, and not just in New York, but in every major US city. The bedbug problem is to the point where humankind will need to come up with a safe and effective means of treating the outbreaks, and fast.

            And, as I mentioned in my last post, one unfortunate issue with illness transmitted at work is that certain illnesses can mimic stress symptoms too. H1N1 was infamous for this in adults, esp. adults 25 and older. Unlike most flus, where you had a fever and blatant respiratory symptoms, this flu just made you tired and crabby, like sleep deprivation, and gave you GI symptoms that were easy to mistake as the result of staying up until 4 AM and subsisting off of sandwiches and cold coffee.

          2. Anonymous*

            Hence the admission of the ‘assumption’ above. Its correlation not necessarily causation but we’d all have felt less crabby about it if the obviously sick person stayed home!

    2. Flynn*

      Well, there’s also the fact that a slightly sick person who stops and takes a day off and looks after themselves is much more likely to back at work in the next day or two, while someone who pushes themselves to their limit and tries to work through their illness is going to go down hard and may end up sick for a whole week.

  6. JLH*

    I applaud this policy and wish more businesses would practice.

    What the OP isn’t getting I think is that it’s better for one person to take a few extra days off than several people having to take a few days off at one time because someone came in to the office with something. By the time you start showing symptoms, you’ve already been contagious for at least a couple days, so anything you can do to decrease exposure time is important to prevent spreading it to others. It also gives you a chance to recoup so when you do come to work, you’re at 100%, instead of less when you’re feeling under the weather.

    You can talk to your boss if you want reassurance, but you’d probably would have heard something by now if you were taking too many days off.

  7. Sam*

    I love this policy! Certainly beats my old workplace’s policy, where if you called in sick before work it was taken as a sick day, but if you showed up and were sent home, it wouldn’t be counted as time off at all. It was stupid – you’d have people coming in to work each morning with flu just to be sent home. It was like the boss wanted to assess how sick you really were, rather than trusting your word. I can understand that some people do abuse sick days, but on the whole this policy just caused resentment and often spread coughs/colds throughout the office.

    As for the OP – AAM is right (as always!). Double check the rules with your boss. If you can them in writing, so much the better (CYA and all that), and then follow them. I also like the suggestion for working from home on the under-the-weather days – at least that way you won’t feel like you’ve dropped your co-workers in it.

  8. Max*

    Whether your boss can come down on you depends on your boss’s personality. Some bosses will abide by the rules no matter what, some will do whatever they want and ignore the rules, and most will fall somewhere between those two points. You need to either address it with your boss personally or make a guess based on their personality.

    As for feeling selfish, isn’t it more selfish to come in and expose everyone in your workplace to a contagious disease because you don’t want to look like you’re not working hard enough? Would you accuse a doctor of being a slacker for taking a sick day off due to a mild cold? (studies show that they often don’t; like everyone else, they’ll try to work through mild symptoms of sickness, even if they work at a hospital!)

  9. GeekChic*

    We have this policy at my current place of work. Allergies aren’t an issue but if you are contagious you stay at home and don’t infect your colleagues. We do have a very generous sick leave policy and a tele-work policy and that makes enforcing the “don’t come in sick” part easy.

    1. Anonymous 2Day*

      I think this policy would be totally wonderful if combined with telecommuting privileges. Another instance where it could come in handy is in cases of extreme weather. My area only gets major snowfall occasionally, but the city has no money, so our streets aren’t paved until sometime in the afternoon, which means some people aren’t coming in. My area has also had a record-breaking number of summer days this past decade with temps close to 100 degrees, and sky-high humidity, and for the people who commute by public transport, it can be challenging to make it in without becoming sick and dehydrated.

      1. Stephanie*

        DC? The snowfall part sounds like Snowpocalypse when my street wasn’t cleared for three weeks…

  10. KayDay*

    Overall, I think this is a great policy–and ideal it should make you NOT feel guilty about staying home sick. (I also wonder if there is someone in the office with a compromised immune system.)

    If staying home for every little cough is negatively impacting your work (or the work of the company overall), I think you should really push to allow employees to work from home, when they are a little bit sick (and then take a normal sick day if they are really sick).

    Secondly, do people in your company have private offices? If so, I think it might be reasonable (check with your boss to see if this is okay first) to go in, close the door, and send around an email stating that you are a bit under the weather, and people should not venture into your office.

  11. AD*

    AFAIK, this policy is rooted in virtually no actual understanding of “contagious”. Most people pick up/spread germs well before they are sick, so by the time symptoms appear, your coworkers have already been exposed. I like the idea of an ounce of prevention, but if you feel you can work through the common cold, it’s not saving the rest of the office any trouble if you stay home.

    1. fposte*

      This is what I was thinking. It does actually help some, because people are still contagious when they’re symptomatic and duration of exposure heightens the risk, but it’d probably be even more useful if they proactively quarantined anybody with a sick family member, especially a kid. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, but it’s not going to be completely preventative.

      1. A Bug!*

        I think there are benefits that are separate from just keeping down the spread of illness in the workplace. There’s a morale issue attached to knowing you’re not going to have to drag your drippy, sneezy butt into work just to avoid an attendance reprimand or a judgment on your work ethic. It doesn’t feel good to come in sick, for a variety of reasons, but many people work in an environment where they feel obligated to do so.

        1. fposte*

          I definitely agree with this–that a push overall to make absence okay when you’re ill is a good thing. Which would be a reason to extend it to the non-contagious illnesses as well. (Really, it’s all a good reason to enhance telecommuting options.)

        2. AD*

          Oh, I agree, but it sounded like the OP was having to stay home on days she would have felt fine to go in. In a way, “don’t ever come in with the sniffles” is just the flipside of “don’t ever take a sick day”, when it’s probably best to treat your employees as adults and let them make the call.

          1. The Other Dawn*

            Overall employees should be trusted to make the decision whether or not to come in, but unfortunately a few employees can’t be trusted to make the right decision. They will come in even when they’re puking up their intestines and ready to drop.

            1. A Bug!*

              Yes, that’s a problem, for sure. Leave it up to the employees’ discretion, and you’ll get people who have different thresholds for “too sick to work” and the imbalance could cause resentment from both ends (from the high-threshold people, that they feel they are working harder, from the low-threshold, that they are being unnecessarily exposed to pathogens).

              I don’t blame the asker’s employer for making it a strict rule, but it is true that it’s restrictive in its own right. Given a choice between the two (“stay home if you feel sick” or “if you’re calling out you’d better have a broken leg”), I think I’d choose the former, but it’s true that neither one’s ideal.

              Whoda thunk it that managing people is a complicated thing!

  12. OP*

    For what it is worth, I love the nature of the policy, just feared being punished for following it. :)

    1. A Bug!*

      I don’t blame you! A policy like that definitely comes with some “too good to be true” apprehension!

    2. Camellia*


      I too worked for a company that urged us not to come in when we were sick. But they also counted each absence as an “incident”. Three incidents in a one-year period meant you had to be “counseled”. This happened to me once; it consisted of my manager telling me that they believed me when I said I was sick but that I needed to understand how really really important it was for me to be at work! And five incidents in a one-year period meant you could be terminated.

      After my “counseling” session I of course never made it to that point again, I just did what everyone else did and came in sick anyway. My fave time was when I had viral bronchitis and after a couple of weeks developed other symptoms which my doctor diagnosed as mononucleosis. When I exclaimed to my manager, “How could I have mono?!?!” his reply was, “Oh. Well, fellow-co-worker has mono.” Sheesh!

  13. -X-*

    Sick can mean so many things and not all are infectious.

    And even among infectious ones, the contagious period is not always aligned with when a person has visible symptoms.

    I had a non-infectious cough for *months* that I was on antibiotics for.

    And frankly, I’m under the weather often – several days a month. I can still function at work and almost never get sick from those because I take care of those through rest.

  14. The Other Dawn*

    OP, how many sick days are employees allowed? I think it’s a great policy, but that can be a real pain if you only get a few sick days.

    I like the policy my husband has where he works: unlimited paid time off. Doesn’t matter if it’s sick or personal (vacation is separate). No difference. Surprisingly people don’t abuse it. BUT if you call out sick too often, or are out for more than three days at a stretch due to illness, you will have to bring in a doctor’s note. I guess that’s how they control it.

  15. Joey*

    I’m not sure if any ones answered you’re questions literally so:
    Yes your boss can come down on you even though you feel like you’re just following policy. Sucks but true. That’s why it’s so important to get a better understanding of what the policy means in the practical world. Lots of places don’t really mean take as many days as you need. They really mean take as many days as you need as long as it doesn’t seem excessive.

    Do you look like a slacker? If the policy is just lip service, maybe. If you’re fairly new, it’s probable. If you have a history of good attendance and this is just a short term thing, probably not.

    One important thing Alison left outstat really helps is to pay careful attention to how your co workers take time off when theyre sick and how they are treated when they do.

  16. Student*

    OP, if you are worried about the number of days you are taking off for illness, I suggest you look into getting flu shots. Many of my co-workers with small children swear by them.

    1. NoseyNursey*

      To be correct, “flu shot’s” only lessen the possibility to contract one or two potential strains expected to be strong in that given year. There are hundreds of flu virus’ out there. Just because you get a flu vaccine does not mean you will not get a flu.

  17. Jesse*

    Just a thought…one person in the office might be autoimmune compromised. Any sort of sick “sniffles” may make them very very sick. Its easier (and cheaper) for one person to call out sick with sniffles than it is for one person to get gravely ill.

    1. Yvi*

      Yep, thanks for mentioning that. I am on immunosuppressants, so if someone come sin sick, I am more likely than others to catch it. Which means I am sick more often than others, which looks really bad :/

  18. Elizabeth West*

    It would be nice to be able to stay home and work if you’re feeling under the weather, but still okay enough to sit up for a while in short bursts. My exjob didn’t mind if we went home if we were really sick, but there were a couple of people who would come in obviously ill. I always felt it made it harder for me to say “I need to go home,” for fear of an unfavorable comparison.

    1. mh_76*

      I was going to ask the same question: Can you work from home on days when you’re feeling under the weather* but not sick enough to not work?

      I’ve had my fair share of days that I would have worked from home had that been allowed. But as (I think) my current job is the first one that I could work from home for, I’ve been that horrible colleague who goes into work with everything shy of a fever or being essentially tethered to the restroom. I confess that I don’t feel guilty even though maybe I should… people who have kids bring their kids’ germs into work and those of us who don’t have kids aren’t immune to their diseases. Maybe they’re the same germs that adults get but it feels like I get minorly sick more often when working with people who have young children (I rarely get very sick).

      When I worked retail, I would also call in sick for lady issues (ok, and once or twice to do HW for a paralegal course I was taking at the time) because who wants to have to stand up for 4-8 hours with those…ouch!!

      *I’ve heard that the phrase “under the weather” used to refer to a massive hangover and has since come to mean a little bit ill but still able to function well.

      1. Anonymous*

        The lady issues and being tethered to the bathroom regularly for another medical issue are why I can no longer work retail, restaurant, etc. If at any point in my career, I am shut out of office work, I will have to file for SSDI.

  19. Fifi*

    Love this policy – so much better than my former workplace where a colleague spread food poisoning around the office because he wouldn’t take a sick day. I wish more companies did this.

    However, the OP could raise contingency planning with his or her manager to combat the problem of having no-one who can cover for absent workers. What happens if someone is, God forbid, hospitalised by illness or hit by a bus? My supervisor does lots of tasks which no-one else in my team knows how to do and literally has a, “If Bob gets hit by a bus” file.

    I would raise something like this with your manager so you don’t feel guilty about taking sick days.

    1. Jesse*

      You can’t spread food poisoning. Its not contagious. Probably your coworker had the flu. Sometimes you don’t realize you aren’t feeling well until you try to eat.

  20. Anonymous*

    This makes me so glad to work for a company with a decent sick leave policy.
    With my previous job we were banned from working within 2 days of any kind of stomach upset ( it wasn’t a food related possition) . I’m lucky that I work in the UK though as we get satutory sick leave of full pay for 1 month.
    I agree with talking it through with your boss though. It’s always best to clarify what you aren’t to sure of.

    1. Anonymous*

      Ummm… No. After 3 waiting days you get paid SSP at a rate of £80ish for a full week whilst you are off ill. There is no statutory sick leave for full pay for a month – If there is I’d love to know where I can find the backup for that. It may be that your employer has chosen to give 1 month sick leave to their employees.

  21. Wayne Schofield*

    As I’m reading all the comments and posts I’m hacking up a lung in my own offices. I want to leave, but during a Holiday week it looks way too”convenient”.

    We are a small office and I just need to get things done. Plus, I took my day off already this year! :)

  22. Erica B*

    as much as I understand the policy, it would drive me nuts. The only time I recall taking sick time for myself (and not because a kiddo was sick) was when I had gall bladder surgery last year, and I have been at my job for 8.5 years. If I have a cold and feel good enough to work I will because a common cold lasts 7-10 days- that’s a lot of time to be out of work for, to sit at home. I don’t work with a ton of people (I have 4 colleagues in my lab) , and we don’t share a many things so if someone is sick we just mention “you might want to stay away” and that usually is fine. Often we don’t have the luxury of waiting to get things done, however I am able to easily schedule around things on my calendar as needed with notice.

  23. Sara*

    How I wish my office would implement a policy like this! We get 6 sick days a year. God forbid you get more than one cold per year! This results in everyone coming in hacking up a lung and infecting the rest of the office.

  24. just a little cold*

    We have several people in our office, including a very important admin staffer, who cannot take the usual cough and cold relief drugs. So when they catch a bug from someone who shouldn’t have come in, they’re miserable. Anyone who comes in even slightly sick gets the cold shoulder from the rest of the office. We’re lucky to have liberal sick leave.

  25. Anda T*

    I actually implemented this policy where I last worked. With a kid in daycare and two college students in work study, the stuff that went around our office was epic. I also have a weak immune system, so whatever was floating around, I was sure to get it and give it to the kid. It kept our small four person office functioning and healthy. I’m going to miss that policy when I find a new job.

  26. Anonymous*

    My job has a call in sick more then once in three months get fired
    policy. Not only is it unfair to your healthy co-workers but may be unethical to expose people who will lose their jobs if they can’t come to work. I work at an upscale “healthy” grocery store and people come in expecting to get healthy but instead leave with H1N1. I myself contracted swine flue after a coworker refused to call in sick. They were rewarded while I was almost fired when I couldn’t make it to work. I would love to curb stomp anyone who knowingly exposes me to whatever nasty contagion they are carrying. Stay the f**k home.

Comments are closed.