how your company should handle flu season at work

If coughing and sneezing are familiar noises in your workplace right now, it’s a sign that your company isn’t handling flu season correctly – and is risking illness sidelining your whole office.

Too often, employees come to work sick because they don’t want to be seen as slacking off or because they don’t have sick leave to cover them if they stay home. And that’s especially prevalent in the U.S., which is the only major industrialized country that doesn’t require employers to provide paid sick days. (In fact, nearly 40 million Americans don’t have a single paid sick day to recover from illness. Contrast that to Japan, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Singapore, all of which require employers to provide at least 10 paid sick days.)

So, with flu season hitting many areas of the country hard, how should employers respond? Here are five keys to treating employees well and keeping illness from spreading through your workplace.

1. Make it clear people shouldn’t come to work sick – and mean it. Some companies say they want sick employees to stay home, but then subtly (or not so subtly) discourage people from using sick time. Be clear with your employees that they should be at home taking care of themselves when they’re sick, not at work spreading germs to coworkers. Back this up by sending people home if they come to work obviously sick.

2. Ensure that managers model the policy you want. If employees see their managers dragging themselves into work when they’re sick, they’ll assume that they’re expected to do the same. Managers need to model the behavior they want others to follow. In this case, that means staying home when they’re sick.

3. Don’t require doctor’s notes from sick employees. Colds and flus don’t generally require a doctor’s care. Requiring a doctor’s note in order to use sick time discourage employees from staying home when they’re ill, is an unfair burden on truly sick employees (because who wants to drag themselves to a doctor when a few days of resting in bed will cure them?), drives up health care costs by pushing people the doctor when they only need home care, and signals to your employees that you don’t trust them enough to treat them like adults. If an employee is using too much sick time, managers can deal with that head-on, but company policies shouldn’t penalize everyone.

4. Make it easy to get flu shots. Consider offering flu shots at your workplace, ideally without charge to employees who want them. It’ll pay off in cost savings down the road, when fewer of your workers are out sick this winter.

5. Provide paid sick time. This is the most important item on the list, because if you don’t do it, none of the rest may matter: Companies that don’t provide paid sick time to employees can expect to have many workers come to work sick, thus infecting other workers, who in turn will also show up sick. This is bad for employees, bad for customers (who may also get infected), and ultimately bad for the company.

I originally published this at Intuit Quickbase’s blog.

{ 210 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    My boss gets mad if people stay home sick and we don’t get paid sick days so people have to be pretty much dying to choose to stay home.

    I brought disinfecting wipes in for my department and we’ve been wiping down all the germy surfaces everyday. It seems to be working.

    1. Jax*

      Same here. No sick pay AND a horrible system of “demerits” every time you call off sick or come in late that add up to verbal warnings and firings.

      It’s my biggest grump with this company, but since they are fabulous in every other area I try to ignore it.

      1. AB*

        I worked in a grocery store once where, if you were full time and took a sick day, they would take you off full time and cut your hours to 20 or less a week until you could “earn” the right to be full time again (typically 3 months, more or less depending on how much your manager liked you). To get to full time (which means benefits and paid vacation time) you had to work 40 hours a week without being a minute short for 6 months. If you fell short one week, even by 10 minutes, you would start at the beginning of the 6 month counter again.

        1. KC*

          That’s horrifying! I just want to shake companies who treat their employees like unruly children. “You were late, so you need to have a benefits/money ‘time out’ until you behave ‘properly.'”

  2. Del*

    One of the things I deeply appreciate about my job is that I’ve never, ever been questioned when I ask to take sick time. I call in, I leave halfway through the day, whatever, all I have to do is say “I’m not feeling well, I can’t work” and every manager I’ve had has accepted it immediately.

    It’s a huge change from my last job where everything was questioned. “Are you sure you’re really sick? Maybe just take an asprin and come in? What are your symptoms? Are you going to a doctor? Are you sure you can’t work?”

    1. some1*

      “It’s a huge change from my last job where everything was questioned. ‘Are you sure you’re really sick? Maybe just take an asprin and come in? What are your symptoms? Are you going to a doctor? Are you sure you can’t work?'”

      And if this is a result of another employee who is abusing sick leave (calling in pretending to be sick when they just want the day off), manage THAT or THOSE people; don’t treat everyone like slackers.

      1. The Clerk*

        People with a certain personality base everything on their personal experience. If they’re one of those who either never gets sick or comes in no matter what, there will never be any excuse for you not coming in, too. There was an article I read somewhere on why jerks get promoted so often, and it said that jerks have a lot of qualities that get you ahead in the business world. So these are often the people in charge of policy, and they take no prisoners.

        So, you took two days off because you tore a calf muscle, and they ask sarcastically whether you work with your calf. Then they take off because they got stung by a bee on the ear and you…totally do not ask whether they work with their ear.

        1. Heather*

          YES. “I never get the flu, so everyone else must be faking.”

          And you already know they don’t work with their ear, because those are also the people who Never. Freaking. Listen. :)

    2. stellanor*

      I got very sick last week and my manager pretty much ORDERED me not to come in when I got it into my head that I was well enough to work on day 3 (I was not. I managed on day 4 but went home a bit early, with great encouragement). I love that my team has a culture of shouting at people until they go home if they come into the office sick.

      Manager did ask if I was going to see a doctor, but it was because she was worried by how sick I was as opposed to wanting to know if I was legitimately ill.

  3. Meredith*

    I am so, so grateful that I work in a place with generous sick time, and full autonomy to use it as I see fit. I don’t get sick often, but when I do it hits me really hard. I like that my management views me as the working adult that I am, and gives me the freedom to call off if I really need to. Workplace flu shot clinics are also awesome – my workplace has many throughout the fall. It’s really convenient to go, and I know my insurance plan already has it covered!

    1. Windchime*

      I work at a health care facility, and we get free flu shots. We aren’t technically required to get them, but it is strongly, strongly encouraged. Not only because my employer doesn’t want the staff to get sick, but more importantly that we don’t want to be responsible for passing the flu along to any of our patients.

      They send around a nurse who sets up shop in the lunchroom. You go in, tell her your name and employee ID, roll up your sleeve and get your shot. It takes literally a minute. Very nice and much appreciated.

  4. Victoria Nonprofit*

    In order to take sick time, employees need reasonable workloads, too. I’ve always worked for organizations with generous sick leave policies and supportive managers – but I often have felt that I can’t afford to take time off because I’ll get (even more) behind on my work.

    1. The IT Manager*

      So true because I was sick a few weeks ago and took a day off, but I ended up working extra hours the next several days in order to catch up.

      People also have a hard time taking vacation just because of the exact same problem with feeling like they’ll be so far behind if they do turn off the email for a few days or a week.

      1. Editor*

        At one of the places I worked, after they laid off a bunch of people, it got very difficult to deal with vacations. I would work a 60-hour or more week to do as much work in advance as I could (and train a different co-worker to do my work each time because of scheduling or layoff issues), leave for vacation exhausted, and come back to a 50-hour or 60-hour week in which people asked me why I hadn’t organized so-and-so before I left. Everyone had the same problem, because we had the same workload for the department but a quarter of the salaried employees were gone. Not fun.

    2. MaryMary*

      Totally agree. It’s so infuriating when even your manager tells you to go home, but your workload is so daunting it’s better to drag yourself in than to let it pile up.

    3. AnonAdmin*

      ^This. Even when I do take sick time, I’m rarely at home resting – I’m at home responding to email, doing what I can to manage my workload so it’s not even more daunting when I return. :(

    4. Not So NewReader*

      Right on. Hundreds of hours of sick time is useless if you get the third degree for calling in.

  5. hamster*

    In my country, legally, everyone who is employed is deducted taxes and has the right to a “family doctor”. The family doctor is the one that can provide you with medical leave. That, or a specialist, by he should concur every time. But in this time you’re payed no matter how many days ( 1 ,2 , 10 up 90 i guess, afterwards it gets more complicated ) It’s not something up to employer. However, where i work now and in the good places, you are not required to bring a note for staying home with the flu or a sick stomach, or something else. If it’s rare enough you can take a day/half day off ( from vacation time) or work from home, or just talk to your manager and take an unpaid or sometimes paid day. It’s not something to get upset about. Still, even where there was no retaliation i had people coming in Very sick . because, they were the kind to be sick, sneezing/ feverish many times during the winter and they just didn’t care anymore .

  6. Yup*

    I once had a boss who would repeatedly call me at home if I was out sick. The first time it happened, I was home with terrible food poisoning and she called to ask where I’d stored her favorite ballpoint pens in the supply cabinet. I threw up while on the phone with her, and she still called back later that day to ask when I’d last ordered the toner cartridges.

    By the end my time working for her, I went to work with bronchitis (never even missed a day!) because she made it so impossible to rest at home. It was easier to just go into the office and sit limply at my desk.

    1. Anonymous*

      Was it satisfying to throw up in her ear? That’s the best possible thing to happen when your boss is annoying you when you’re home sick.

      1. Yup*

        I stupidly deprived myself of that satisfaction. I was trying to be all professional (why do I bother?) so I put the phone down and kind of pushed it away. And then retrieved it afterwards and realized that she was STILL TALKING ABOUT THE PENS.

    2. EM*

      That’s when you turn your phone on silent and don’t answer it. :)

      If she asks, say you were sleeping…because you are sick.

        1. Jeanne*

          Yes! I had one boss who claimed he made random calls to see if you were actually at home when you called out sick. I said that I always try to rest when I am sick and I don’t answer the phone.

    3. ThursdaysGeek*

      When I’m sick, I don’t answer the phone. Or, I’ll answer it if I’m up and near it anyway, but I won’t go out of my way.

    4. Stephanie*

      I used to get really bad cramps, but my (male) boss was skeptical cramps could be that bad. He was also someone who was skeptical of people taking sick leave. After I fainted out my chair one month, he began to believe me.

      1. VintageLydia*

        My cramps are so bad I didn’t even know I had a miscarriage until I went to my gyno a few days later (pre scheduled appointment.) So few people take bad cramps seriously.

        1. Stephanie*

          Problem is, it’s one of those things people (women included) don’t fully grasp unless they’ve experienced it. I didn’t get a ton of sick leave at that particular job, so I often just dragged myself to work and hoped I didn’t have a busy day. I’m sure I looked really odd with my heating pad, bananas, tea, and blanket.

          “I don’t understand? You just can’t take some Midol?”

          1. TL*

            Yup! I can’t tell you how many of my friends have rolled their eyes when I say I can’t go off bc because I can’t function for a few days out of the month.

            It’s worse with women, I think, because they have a preconceived notion of what “bad cramps” are and have a hard time understanding that other people’s definitions don’t match up to theirs.

            1. Editor*

              I had a friend who had cystic ovaries and worked with someone who had endometriosis. Their definition of bad cramps trumped mine any day. “Incapacitating pain” or “acute spasms” or something would have been more accurate — calling them “bad cramps” trivialized what they were experiencing.

              1. Crampy*

                Don’t forget that IBS and inflammatory bowel disease can cause excruciating pain for both males and females. There can be other antisocial symptoms too.

              2. A Cita*

                Yes, I have both. “Bad cramps” is the world’s biggest understatement. Without my medication, I would be in serious trouble. I’ve broken bones, had dysentery, had a flesh eating parasite in the middle of nowhere that I had to cut out myself with only a pen knife and an antibacterial wipe, and none of that compares to cramps.

  7. Kara*

    I think sometimes companies can take these policies a little too far. A few years ago my other half worked at a company that didn’t offer sick time. Our daughter got sick with the flu (H1N1) and when he told his manager she was sick, the manager sent him home for two days and made him use two of his vacation days (he only had five for the year) – when he wasn’t even the one who was sick! He also wasn’t needed at home to stay with our daughter, because I had a flexible schedule and could take care of her myself. I get that the company didn’t want him to possibly be a carrier at work, but if they’re so worried about it they should offer sick time – not force employees to use their vacation time when they aren’t even the family member who is sick.

    1. Yup*

      I shouldn’t have mentioned my husband had H1N1. The only reason I was “approved” to stay at work was that I had received a flu shot and he hadn’t. It actually came up in conversation discussing whether the H1N1 pandemic was just scare tactic click bait for the news. I said, “well, since my husband has it, I’m guessing it’s a real issue.” People freaked out.

      1. A Cita*

        Is it really that big of a deal? I had it, went through all the symptoms, and was over it in just a couple of days. I’ve had worse colds.

        1. Andrea*

          For some people, yes, it affected them more than others. One of my high school classmates died from H1N1, he was only 30. Granted, he had an underlying condition (asthma).

  8. Cruciatus*

    I would love to know if people who are in positions to make changes at companies read these and realize they need to implement new things (like offering sick time or not requiring doctor’s notes, etc.) Do you ever get feedback on companies/people who try to change?

    About doctor’s notes, my company does require them, but not until you’ve been out 3 days. I guess at that point it seems more understandable. Although if you give your notice, you are required to have a doctor’s note for 1 missed day! Weird.

    1. Anonymous*

      You can be out three days for a cold or flu, and the doctor won’t be able to help much with those.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I sometimes get email from people who are newly promoted into positions where they can change this stuff and tell me that they plan to, which is nice.

      1. Jean*

        Oh, this is good to hear! It’s always nice to know that people are chipping away to improve the world. Even if it’s only one small bit at a time the eventual total will be significant.

        1. KJR*

          I am one of those people…the farthest I’ve been able to get is to offer 5 sick days instead of 3, which is progress I suppose. But our managers still come to work sick. Personally, if I’m sick I will stay home…but I don’t sick often, so it doesn’t do much good in the way of setting an example.

          We don’t require doctor’s notes, so that’s a plus. Especially since most of us are on high deductible health plans and would have to shell out $75-125 or so for the doctor to tell us we are indeed sick.

      2. Lora*

        I do send people home when they are sick, and apparently my boss used to have a “power through it” attitude. Take your laptop and work from home if you can. Or rest and drink a lot of fluids. Whatever. When anyone comes into my office with so much as a sniffle, I push my chair as far away as possible and chant, “are you sick cause if you’re sick go home. Are you sick cause if you’re sick go home” over and over. If they used up their sick time, here’s a book to read, you’re Working From Home.

    3. Another Job Seeker*

      I actually respectfully disagree with the 3-day rule. My company has a rule that if you are out sick for more than 2 days you have to have a doctor’s note, but individual managers can choose to waive that requirement. I have had 4 different managers during the time I have worked here, and the only manager of mine who has required a doctor’s note (if you are out 3 days or more) is my current manager. I’m sick now, but I’m going in to work because doing so is less hassle than dealing with my manager. I also took vacation once because I thought I might need it to recover from surgery. My doctor said that I would need to be out of the office for 48 hours (both surgery time and recovery time). Because my supervisor is a micromanager, she would have done the math and required that I come in to the office for a couple of hours the day of my surgery (before the surgery – since the surgery began after my regular work time). She also would have made me come in on the third day – since the doctor said I would only need to be out for two days. Since I didn’t know whether I’d feel well enough to come in on that third day, I simply requested two days of sick leave “for a medical procedure” and 1 day of vacation. I was still under heavy medication the third day (and in NO condition to drive), so I was grateful that I had that day. This supervisor is why my name on this blog is “Another Job Seeker” – LOL. I do have to say, however, that in spite of my crazy boss, I’m grateful for this job because it beats unemployment. Of course, seeking other employment because there are better jobs out there.

      1. Cruciatus*

        I only said it seems more understandable, not that it’s a great rule! I believe exceptions can be made, but I have never been sick 3 days in a row, nor have most people I know at work so I don’t know how strictly it’s implemented (and hopefully I won’t need to find out). But I also work at a med school so finding a doctor isn’t too hard…

        1. Another Job Seeker*

          Sorry – I misunderstood you. As an FYI, your co-workers might have been sick for 3 days – and just didn’t tell you. If I go in to work sick, I do my best to stay away from people and hide it. The surgery was a rare exception. I actually took the vacation day because I thought I’d be in pain. I was, but the bigger issue was the effect of the medicine I was taking. (Of course, there was no way I could have known ahead of time how the medicine would affect me. It’s a highly addictive painkiller that is available only through a prescription). Killed the pain, but sapped my energy and made me groggy.

          1. Audiophile*

            The current company does not offer sick time. A few years ago, I felt horrible, running a fever but felt freezing cold, and at the end of everyday, I went home and slept almost immediately. Still not sure what I had, but it went on for several days. I couldn’t afford to lose the pay, so I dragged myself in here. And I’d do the same thing again, because this year when I got sick, the nurse insisted I go home because I had a fever. What did that show me, except not to go to the nurse?

    4. S.A.*

      I think having worked in different areas for several different companies over the years I may know an answer or two to that pondering of yours Cruciatus.

      The problem is those companies may also have a history of employees who abuse sick time or employees who use those days to look for another job.

      I have used vacation time to look a for another job and done all traveling for that week to go to interviews. They want to keep tabs on people because they have a high turnover rate but common sense forbid they change policy to encourage the great employees to stay. If you treat your employees like children then they’ll be encouraged to act like it. Why work your butt off for 51 weeks out of a year and then have an employer fight you about taking one lousy week off?

      When companies claim this way of managing has always worked it means they have never even considered trying anything new. This is a huge red flag that many people accept as normal for employers in the US. It’s sad but I see it becoming more and more common.

  9. James M*

    With all the common sense reasons to be smart about contagious diseases in the workplace, why is the opposite attitude so prevalent in the U.S.?

    Seriously, why do I so often hear about employees penalized for taking sick days, required to bring a doctor’s note, and second-guessed by their bosses? Do these people think reality will bend itself to their convenience? Some sort of superiority complex? Disbelief in fundamental causality? Why?

    1. Ann Furthermore*

      Because the US is not as labor-friendly as other western countries. And especially since the recession started a few years ago, many employers have this attitude of “if you don’t like/aren’t willing to do your job, there are plenty of other people who’d be glad to have it.”

      1. AVP*

        Also, the other side of the recession is that so many companies are running as lean as humanly possible. Years ago, if someone called out sick or had an emergency, there was enough redundancy built into the system to allow for absences. Now that we have exactly enough people to do exactly the expected workload, without one ounce of fat, if someone calls out sick it’s a company-wide crisis.

        1. Nina*

          I couldn’t agree more, AVP. A few years ago, a coworker and I got the flu at the same time. We were a small department (only 4 people) and she and I had been there the longest, so we were the most knowledgeable about the computer system. I was out for four days, my coworker was out for three. The guy who took over our work in our absence screwed up the system so much it took us days to fix it. We had tried training him earlier and nothing seemed to stick, so I wasn’t surprised that things went wrong. But I had worried about this exact thing happening; and since the dept was already bare bones, there was no one else to cover. The fourth person in my dept was my supervisor, who had only taken the position recently and knew less about the computer than the guy who covered for me. The sick coworker said we (she and I) could never be absent at the same time again, because of everything that happened.

      2. AB*

        Hear hear! There is this pervading feeling like you are robotic chattel rather than a valued employee. I worked for one person who would get unaccountably angry whenever you wanted to take time off, even if you were using scheduled vacation days. I got a nasty cold that ended up as a respiratory infection. I lost my voice from coughing (with my mouth covered) and it was finally bad enough that I had to stay home. There was no mistaking I was sick. I went to the Dr. and ended up being sent to the ER for breathing treatments. While I was at the hospital, I got 20 phone calls and e-mails from my boss who wanted to talk about something not time sensitive. Even though the Dr. gave me a note ordering a week’s bed rest, the boss demanded I come in the next day and berated me for taking time off “when he had questions that needed answered” and for “not being available when he needed me”. He very much took the idea that, unless you were actually dead, you needed to be at work.

          1. AB*

            This is the same boss who informed me it was my job to read his mind. I am not kidding. He was mad because there was some task that I didn’t do because he hadn’t told me about it and then yelled at me for not reading his mind (he actually used those words). He also forbade me to use my own time to help other co-workers with their English pronunciation (as in, we would meet for coffee before work and I would help them with their pronunciation and to learn idioms. I wasn’t charging them for this or anything. They asked for help and I agreed).

    2. Lora*

      Two managers at a client whose project I just got transferred out of (THANK THE LORD) used to tell me, repeatedly, that the only way to get any work out of people was by nagging them incessantly, second-guessing and micromanaging them. Nothing else would work. I pointed out that they had already tried this strategy with several employees and it hadn’t worked out too well. No, no, they insisted the only way people will work is if you watch them like hawks and bother them every five minutes.

      I sat down with their manager and discussed this as perhaps what was contributing to the client’s issues (which I was hired to resolve). He agreed with me and said he was trying to model good manager behavior (to his credit, he really was) but that his management had not given him any disciplinary or firing power over his own employees, so there wasn’t much else he could do other than modeling good behavior and talking to them about expectations.

      Unfortunately, that attitude seems to be common. Yes, it was a superiority complex–they felt that nobody else could do the work as well as they could (even though their results were terrible) or cared as much as they did (even though “caring” was demonstrated by a lot of shouting and temper tantrums) and therefore in order to ensure quality and timeliness this was how they had to operate.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Bad management. They don’t recognize that they need to get results not just in the short-term, but in the long-term too … and that treating people will means that they’ll attract and retain great employees who will be heavily engaged in the work, whereas being a jerk or having awful policies means that they’ll have trouble attracting and retaining great employees, and the ones they do have won’t be all that invested (at least not for long).

    4. Mike C.*

      Lack of labor protections and basic respect for employees.

      Seattle recently mandated five paid sick days a year, after the first year, for food service workers in businesses above a certain size. The people who fought that swore up and down that it would close down their businesses and took away their freedom to run their business as they saw fit and blah blah blah.

      Yes, I said food service workers. If people are willing to fight you on making sure the people who cook, handle and serve your food aren’t sick, they’ll fight you on basically anything.

      1. Nonprofit Office Manager*

        Yep. I lost a lot of respect for the companies on the news that were yammering on about how they’d have to lay people off if they were forced to give paid sick days. Really, people? If you can’t afford to pay 5 days of sick leave, something else will surely put you out of business eventually.

        1. Matteus*

          Well, if they were long-sighted enough to implement paid sick leave in the first place, government intervention would not have been necessary.

      2. Confused*

        The lack of sick days for food service workers makes no sense at all. If boss/business owner lacks basic human decency for their employees to let them rest while ill they should know it has an impact on the ever precious bottom line anyway.
        I have walked out of businesses where the person who would be handling my food was sick. At best, it’s gross.

      3. Jamie*

        The food service thing kills me.

        Anyone who knows me knows I’m the last person calling for knee-jerk regulation, but can we not have people forced into making a choice between serving food with the flu and losing their jobs?

        My daughter works food service and she had the flu last year, I was keeping her home because she was running a fairly high fever and had such bad ear infections she was miserable. And nothing is as appetizing as her productive cough. I told her to let them fire her, so she called in and they were furious…she spent hours calling co-workers until she finally got someone to cover her shift.

        Ridiculous – I’m pissed about that.

        1. Bar*

          Calling coworkers is the worst!

          The absolute worst part about my job as a food service worker was the anxiety of being unexpectedly sick or trying to schedule a day off.

          Management’s solution was that if you got someone to cover your shift, you could call out sick. Of course, I was a little shy and the people I was most comfortable were the ones who I shared most of my shifts with. I hated calling strangers on their day off. And I’d have to go into work anyway to get the call sheet, so I’d just work.

          Also, you couldn’t return to work without a doctor’s note. Who wants to go to the doctor for a cold, flu, stomach bug? Of course the people who habitually DID call out for hangovers didn’t get fired or reprimanded until that policy was introduced. Instead we all had to work sick.

          1. Mike C.*

            I hate this idea that you have to find someone to replace you. Sure, it’s a nice thing to do, but management of employees is the job of the manager, not the employer.

            Someone’s sick day shouldn’t have to depend on who’s in your contact list or how many favors you can hand out.

    5. James M*

      Thanks everyone for the insight! I’m on the same page with Mike C. and Jamie; it makes me sick to hear about the things food service companies vehemently oppose. Not only do they resist policies that ultimately benefit everyone, but they always seem to threaten to make grunt-level employees walk the metaphorical plank. I’m happy to take my business elsewhere.

      Summarizing the answers here, bad sick day policies are exacerbated by a lack of immediate tangible consequences (legal, business, etc…), textbook insanity, and psychopathy.

      I hope it’s not catching! (and don’t say “too late!”)

  10. ew0054*

    Sick people should stay home or be sent home. If you can work from home, great. Otherwise take today off so you don’t have to call out and make others call out all next week. No point in getting the rest of the office sick.

    The real underlying problem is the office culture making people feel they must come in even though they are inches from death. How do we address this?

    1. Lucy*

      An extremely senior colleague came in to my office with shingles last week! That sets a dangerous precedent.

      1. CAA*

        According to the CDC: “Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another. However, the virus that causes shingles, the varicella zoster virus, can be spread from a person with active shingles to a person who has never had chickenpox. In such cases, the person exposed to the virus might develop chickenpox, but they would not develop shingles. The virus is spread through direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters, not through sneezing, coughing or casual contact.”

        1. Bwmn*

          I don’t necessarily think the point is about being contagious or not – but about setting a precedent of coming to work when ill. If senior colleagues come to the office with shingles – then that cold you have definitely shouldn’t prevent you from coming in.

    2. Chinook*

      I agree – sick people should stay home. Not only so they don’t spread the illness and so that they can recover faster, but also because you are liable to make mistakes when you are not thinking clearly. The sign I came back too early from the flu last year was that the accountant who had me typing up financial statements found a batch of stupid typos when I was the one who usually caught his! It was a better use of company resources to give me the extra 2 days off than for me and others having to spend time fixing my mistakes.

    3. Chris*

      While I agree with you that in an ideal world people should stay home sick, it also bears to keep in mind that some people cannot afford to be sent home/stay home sick. I know that I have come to work sick because I cannot afford the lack of income and the $115 5 minute visit to the doctor to get a note that says “I’m sick!”. The penalty point for calling in sick/leaving more than an hour before your scheduled shift end is a bonus on top of that.

      We need to address the culture of if you are breathing you can work for sure, but we also need to address the lack of sick days available to workers. Without having the ability to call in and not be penalized heavily, people will continue to work while ill.

  11. m*

    Curious to know if for things like this having a paid time off policy (banking together vacation, sick and personal days) counts for “paid sick time.” I can see the argument going either way because where I work we have just switched to PTO rather than separate banks and it’s generous but I can envision a scenario where someone would not use a PTO day sick because they’re “saving” it for vacation.

    Alison – Have you ever written about PTO vs separate banks? (I think not but may just be forgetting.)

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      I always end up on the fence on this issue. I rarely need to take sick days, so I would personally prefer a combined PTO bank.

      On the other hand, I realize that the combined PTO has a negative consequence. In my experience, combined PTO discourages employees from taking sick days because they want to save those days for vacations. Or they’ve already used the days for vacation, and now have nothing left for sick. So the end result is sick people coming to work and exposing the rest of us to their sickness.

      1. AmyNYC*

        Exactly. If I only have 10 days of PTO that’s both my sick and vacation time, I’m not wasting a day at home that I could spend on a beach.

        1. Joey*

          See what I mean. There’s just no way to please everyone with whether or not to use separate or combined buckets. The key is to provide ample time off that allows people to take occasional onesie twosie sicknesses/personal reasons and also for an extended break. It really doesn’t matter what you call it.

          1. AnonEMoose*

            I used to have a job where the policy was that your PTO bank was for your vacation time and other prescheduled stuff (like the occasional doctor’s appointment and so on). But there was no defined “sick time” bank and it didn’t come out of your PTO.

            If you were sick, you stayed home and they’d pay you, They’d talk to you if they felt it was excessive (and I think they meant it – I did use sick days sometimes, and they never said a word except “hope you feel better”.) I loved it and I wish more companies did it that way.

        2. Marie*

          Wait – it’s legal to have only 10 days of PTO a year? Yet another reason I am glad to work in a country with strong labour unions. By law, we have:
          – 36 days of paid sick leave over a 3 year cycle
          – a minimum of 15 days of paid annual leave
          – a minimum of 3 days of paid family responsibility leave (things like illness or death of close relatives)
          – a minimum of 4 months of unpaid maternity leave (during which time you can claim part of your salary from the unemployment insurance fund)

          In order to retain good staff, my work gives 25 instead of 15 days of annual leave, and in addition to the 3 days of paid family responsibility leave, also gives 3 days of discretionary paid religious leave. And they provide 4 months of fully paid maternity leave.

          Most of us don’t use all our leave, because then we wouldn’t meet our performance targets, but it’s a real comfort knowing it’s there.

          1. Emma*

            It’s legal to have 0 days of sick or vacation time. We have no federal minimum vacation/sick time policy, unlike our minimum wage policy. But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean that ALL American employers do it – many employers realize that insufficient vacation/sick leave policies lead to employee morale and retention issues, so they offer leave on a spectrum from miserly to quite robust. So part of job hunting over here is learning about and deciding whether you accept a new employer’s vacation/sick leave policy.

            *I’m not defending the lack of a minimum sick leave/vacation policy. Just explaining it.

            1. Marie*

              Isn’t 0 days of sick or vacation time tantamount to slavery? Or do they get around it because it’s ALLOWED, it’s just not PAID?

              1. Emma*

                That’s a bit excessive. It’s not slavery. For starters, you’re being paid and no matter how atrocious many folks’ jobs are, the majority of Americans are not performing actual slave labor. We’re not living in work camps and being dragged out of bed, dying of fever, by an employer’s bully-boy to work in a sweat shop for 12 hours a day.

                You’re free to take that unpaid/non-policy sick or vacation day…you’ll just reap any negative consequences, such as docked pay or job loss. You can also leave for another job if this policy doesn’t work for you.

      2. Bwmn*

        I think the reality is that sick time and vacation time simply aren’t the same and shouldn’t be managed as such. If there’s a new employee who’s been working for 6-9 months, and has been planning their first vacation – what benefit does it do the company if that employee gets ill a month before this vacation but won’t have enough vacation time if a day or two is taken for illness? It’s basically a situation where an employee always needs to have a few “rainy day” sick days saved at all times. Or not use sick days.

        I get that for the “rarely ill” this system seems great as it gives more vacation/personal days. However the nature of this system ultimately overly encourages everyone to be “rarely ill”.

      3. Cat*

        Also, in my experience, a lot of companies use this to cheap out on PTO and give far less combined time than they used to give separately. In some sense this is to be expected because you’re not expecting all sick time to be used every year. But when you’re talking 10 days total (which is not uncommon), of course you’re going to hugely incentivize people to come in sick. I sure would.

      4. Windchime*

        The flip side is that for people who are rarely sick, they see those “sick” days sitting there, going unused, year after year. So they call in “sick” when they would like additional time off–after all, they are entitled, right?

        If people are going to cheat the system, they will do it either way.

        1. A Cita*

          Huh, I’ve never called in sick just because I wanted extra time off. I’m rarely sick and have separate buckets, but I never rue those unused sick days. I don’t even think about them. Though could be because I have generous vacation time that I can never fully use?

    2. Joey*

      It’s not so much whether you combine them or not. Its more of the philosophy on how and when employees take time off.

    3. BCW*

      I really think it depends on how much is given. I think for it to work well it has to be more than what you were given for vacation + sick. So standard would be 10 vacation and 5 sick, but I think for the combined PTO, you need at least 20, because less than that and you are right, you are looking at people who don’t want to use their vacation time.

      The one time I had it, it worked fine in our department. In fact, many people ended up carrying over what they could from year to year.

      1. Joey*

        That makes no sense. How can 15 days be acceptable if you split it and unacceptable if you combine it? Are people that easily fooled by splitting them?

        1. Bwmn*

          I don’t think it’s so much about things being acceptable but rather how workable it is.

          If I have 15 combined days – then it’s a realistic situation that after the year finishes, it can be January 1 and one would have no sick or vacation days. With January/February often being the height of flu season – as sick days aren’t automatically rebanking – this can create a fairly precarious position where employees have to save up for their sick days at the worst time of the year. Or are essentially told that they can’t fully take 15 days during a calendar year for fear of getting a January cold.

          However, if someone is given a slightly more generous package than having keeping those extra days banked post large vacation/beginning of the year – then the system puts employees as a more relaxed position.

          1. Joey*

            That’s not about the number of days though. That’s about whether you’re allowed to carry them over.

            1. Bwmn*

              But it’s essentially saying you *have* to carry over a day in order to be sick in January. If I want to take 10 vacation days in 2013 and happen to have 5 sick days – then until February, I’m put in a situation where I can’t be sick. And this if in the spring/summer I’m planning a vacation – I may not personally feel able to take another sick day until the autumn of 2014.

              It’s a system that only truly works if you can function with a cushion of days you expect to rarely or never use.

              1. Windchime*

                I suppose that’s true in situations where a set amount is dumped in yearly. Where I work, it’s accumulated throughout the year. Yes, I could use up everything in my bank right now if I took a huge vacation, but on my next pay period I would have a few hours in there again because they accumulate.

                Also….we have something called Extended Illness. It’s basically hours for sick leave that is automatically used once you have used 3 consecutive days out sick. So if you have the flu, the first 24 hours comes out of your PTO, and then your Extended Illness. This prevents people from burning through all their PTO if they are really sick.

          2. Jamie*

            But if the deal was 10 days vacation and 5 sick days – if you pool them into 15 days PTO why do you need to add more days so people keep them banked?

            I do see the point about the first of the year – easily resolved by letting employees go negative in their PTO accrural when sick.

            There are people who, no matter how generous the time, won’t keep sick days banked – they’ll use it all for vacation. It’s the same mindset which allows people to get behind the wheel without insurance – I don’t get it – but it happens.

            Maybe because I’m coming from the mindset of an SMB where it’s more easily managed, but it seems to me if you pool and allow people to go negative without penalty for emergencies and being sick then if you have people abusing the system then you address those people. The ones who are in the negative at every year end due to poor planning rather than covered medical issues.

            My company, for example, accrues PTO throughout the year and cashes out what isn’t used at year end so nothing rolls over. That doesn’t mean we don’t let people take vacation before they’ve accrued all their time, or that they’d be punished for being sick. It just means you run negative in your PTO account for a little bit until it catches up.

            1. A Bug!*

              If I’m understanding the reasoning, it’s to discourage hoarding your PTO by coming in sick.

              I can sort of see it. If your vacation and sick days come from the same pool, then staying home sick is using a day that could have been used for vacation. On the other hand, if it’s made clear that you have vacation days for vacation and sick days for sickness, that decision’s already been made for you, and there’s less perceived benefit to coming in sick.

              All that said, I don’t agree that it’s a good solution. It’s about making sure your employees know that they are expected to stay home when they are sick or contagious, and holding them to that. I do think it would be kind to allow employees in certain circumstances to opt to take their sick days unpaid if they want to preserve their PTO, but that goes again to giving more options to employees rather than fewer.

              1. Jamie*

                Oh I totally agree – and this does happen. What I don’t understand is the solution to it giving more time. I’m just saying no matter how much time you give some people will always work sick and horde for vacation.

    4. EM*

      I’ll chime in that I personally, like 1 PTO bucket when enough days are given.

      This is because I rarely get sick & would feel guilty using all my sick days, but when they are all just PTO, you can bet your sweet bippy I’m using all the days I get.

      My previous job with the best benefits (to me) in this case was where we had 18 PTO days per year + 2 personal days. PTO in 1 large bucket. I would never use 10 sick days a year, but I would absolutely use 18 PTO days in the year!

      1. Bwmn*

        While I get the perspective of the rarely ill – I think that the system ultimately pushes people to try and not be sick. Which in turn is the opposite of encouraging people to take sick days. It ends up being a system that requires management to be far more aggressive in telling people to go home and use sick days.

        In the US, I think part of the problem is how we think of time off. Vacation/sick/personal days are framed as “benefits” offered by the company. In many other countries, sick days in particular (and sometimes vacation as well) are framed as “rights”. So the idea is that an employee has the right not to work when ill, as opposed to an employee having the benefit of not working when ill. If it’s a benefit to not work when ill, and I’m rarely ill – then why don’t I transfer that benefit to not work in another scenario? However, if it’s a right to not work when ill, then that’s not necessarily a transferable concept to having the right to not work and do whatever else.

        1. Ann O'Nemity*

          Your comment reminded me of the other side of combined PTO. One of my co-workers uses most of her PTO on unplanned absences due to chronic health issues. In a separate pool system, she would likely run out of sick days while having plenty of unused vacation days. She’s been a huge advocate for the combined system as it gives her more flexibility.

        2. TL*

          I liked the PTO bucket because I got sick a lot and can’t afford long vacations.

          It was nice not worrying about number of sick days taken, though I had a generous enough supply that I always had 5-6 days banked.

    5. Allison*

      PTO works if you give employees enough for sufficient vacation time AND sick days. If people are only accruing 10 days of PTO a year, that’s just enough for, say, a week off in the summer, a few days for holiday travel in the fall and winter, and a couple sick days. Better than nothing, but barely enough for most people.

      What about a vacation/sick day system that allows people to convert their sick days to extra days of vacation toward the end of the year, or roll them over in the form of vacation going into the next year. That way they don’t go to waste, but people aren’t torturing themselves to save their vacation days for vacation.

      1. Lynn Whitehat*

        I like not having to quibble or feel guilty about “oh, were you really sick or just feeling lazy?” A day out is a day out, the impact on the business is the same. I am one of the people who is rarely seriously ill, and too scrupulous to use a sick day to do personal things, so the combined bank works out better for me.

    6. Del*

      The way my company handles it works out pretty well, although I think it maybe sounds unnecessary at the surface.

      Basically, we have two buckets, but they can cross over at need. Vacation time is assigned at the start of the year, and sick leave accrues continually with each pay period, but if we run out of sick leave we can apply vacation time to callouts, and we can schedule sick leave in advance and treat it like vacation time. So having the separate buckets encourages people to use it separately, but for the perpetually healthy ones, the sick leave is absolutely available for things other than being stuck at home ill.

      Part of what allows this is the culture of not asking questions – if someone requests time off, it’s granted unless there’s a strong business reason not to. So you might be scheduling that sick leave for some mental health time, for a doctor appointment, or to go relax and have fun — no one really cares, it’s your PTO and you’ve earned it!

  12. Jamie*

    I really want masks to catch on here like they have in other countries.

    We have a box, but no one uses them. If I thought it would help I’d draw adorkable noses and whiskers on all of them…but it won’t.

    Those of you with company policies that get people coming in when sick – hand wash, hand wash, hand wash …for the sick and the well.

    And well people, bring them tea and heat their soup for them…they’ll think you’re being kind, but it keeps them out of the kitchen and from touching stuff. Contain them with kindness.

    Knock wood, but I’ve heard nary a sniffle all season in my office. I think it’s because even the flu is sick of the snow and ridiculous temps. (Took me 4 hours to make it home last night – can winter be over yet? Please? Who do I talk to about this?)

    1. AB*

      Those masks are uncomfortable as all get out. I would rather we have people who are able to take days off work and come to work healthy.

      1. Jamie*

        I wasn’t advocating it in place of people staying home. That’s always my first preference both for them and me.

        I’ve sent people home.

        I’m talking about the ones who insist on coming in for whatever reason, or have to. I’ve been that person where I’ve had to because of timing beyond my control – but I was the only one in the office for that week so everyone missed my oh so sexy look of sweats, slippers, and a smear of Vicks under my nose.

        Definitely people should stay home and rest – and the business benefits, too, because people recover faster if they allow their bodies to rest and fight the bug rather than power through it where they get kinda better but are lagging and still sick much longer.

      2. A Bug!*

        I don’t mind them if they’re not really cheaply-made, except that I’ve never found a mask that doesn’t cause my glasses to fog up with my breathing.

        If it were a less unusual thing socially, I’d wear a mask to work during flu season. So many clients come in sick. But it wouldn’t go well, because I live in Bizarro world and the clients would wonder what sickness I have that they’re going to catch from me.

    2. Jean*

      >If I thought it would help I’d draw adorkable noses and whiskers on all of them…

      Maybe if you added a box of headbands with bunny, mouse, or kitty ears? It would also help identify which coworkers need the kind kitchen quarantine treatment.

      1. Jamie*

        I want to work with you – the most adorable office ever!

        Now I’m sad I don’t have ears on my headband. :(

  13. Ann Furthermore*

    There are some things about my current employer that I’m not crazy about, but the sick policy isn’t one of them. I’ve never been questioned about if I’m *really* sick, how long do I think I’ll be out, and for my manager to call me at home, it must be a dire emergency. A doctor’s note is not required until after 5 consecutive days of sick time, and that is because you automatically get put on short-term disability.

    Another thing that helps is if you can work remotely. That way, even if you’re not feeling great, you can still answer emails and get things done, without bringing your germs to work and spreading them around.

    1. JFQ*

      I was coming here to post the point about working remotely. Most of my company works from home most of the time, so we just avoid this parsing of attendance for run-of-the-mill illnesses. We also, I think, avoid a lot of would-be illnesses by simply not being forced into an enclosed space with sick people.

    2. Jamie*

      I agree with working remotely when possible…if possible.

      I think it’s better for colds or other things where you’re germy and drippy but otherwise feeling okay. The flu will kick your butt and you should be resting and recovering – not trying to work through a fog of cough syrup.

      And if you want to work from home on occasion set it up ahead of time. The day you have the flu is not the day to have IT set up your VPN on the fly, show you how to use it – or explain file sharing to you.

      Some lead time and IT can make working from home quite pleasant. 5 people out who all want to try it for the first time …Logmein or nothing.

  14. TheExchequer*

    Allison, would your advice change for managers of first responders (nurses, EMTs, etc)? I have a number of nursing friends and I know their sick policy usually translates to “I’m coming in unless I’m dead.”

    1. Bwmn*

      I know a number of hospitals work on this model – and it’s never made any sense to me. I get the nature of first responder scheduling may make “no sick day” policies easier, but it baffles me. How hospitals and food service have the least flexibility regarding sick days is ok strikes me as completely bizarre.

      1. TheExchequer*

        Given how hard my nursing friends work, I’m inclined to agree that the policy is total Baloney Sandiwches. But also given how hard it is for new nursing grads to find jobs, a lot of them may have little or no choice.

        1. Bwmn*

          My closest experience with this was when I was working in a pediatric oncology department – and the number of nurses and medical residents that would come in when sick was really high. Not sure if I worked in a particularly bad environment as it was a teaching hospital – but there it is.

          1. Windchime*

            That is terrifying for sure. The last thing a child who is ill with cancer needs is a doctor or nurse who is sick. What are they thinking!??

            1. Bwmn*

              As I was a research assistant, I didn’t directly work with nurses/medical residents to get a better idea of why the practice worked like that across positions. I know that among research assistants, the practice was entirely built around having banked PTO. One girl was getting married and planned on using all of her PTO hours around her wedding, another was planning on taking a really long vacation, etc.

              Among my peers, maybe it was just the reality of the majority of us being new to the work force and having very hands off managers (principle investigators). But the results were pretty ridiculous.

      2. Chinook*

        DH was told that there are times as a cop for the dudes in Redd serge that, if they were short handed, they would drag you from your sick bed. This is more typical in detachments with less than 5 people total (very small towns) where having a body present is vital (even if they propped in a car in a school zone to slow traffic). Then again, considering the various body fluids and smells they deal with on a daily basis, it is not like they are fearing for the health of their “clients.”

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t have expertise in those fields so I may be missing the nuances, but I’d think that’s a field where you’d really want staffing levels that allow for people to be out.

    3. Joey*

      Well where I’m at I know the ranks are always advocating for more staff. And to push that point home they point to the amount of overtime they work and that they have a hard time getting days off approved. But at the same time they complain when overtime isnt available so I’m not sure what those employers are supposed to do.

    4. AAA*

      I manage the EMTs who operate the ambulances for our city, and although there is a strong culture of “come in unless you are dying” I’m doing my best to change that! These are people who are constantly in contact with the elderly, chronically ill, or otherwise immune-compromised, besides eating/sleeping beside firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders who we want to keep as healthy a group on the whole as possible. There is no reason we should be expecting healthcare professionals to come to work sick, even if this is implied by the culture rather than explicitly stated.
      I encourage all of the EMTs I work with to take the sick day, and take it early if you feel the cold/fly coming on (so I can fill the staffing gap).

    5. NylaW*

      This type of “policy” is really on the way out since even flu infections can count against you when you report “hospital acquired infections” to the state and fed, and those thanks to Obamacare now factor into your reimbursements. If an organization hasn’t figured that out, I would hope it would when they suddenly aren’t getting as much money back. The last thing you want is your staff making your patients sicker.

  15. Bwmn*

    I have to add that part of creating an environment sick day encouraging is to not lump sick/vacation/personal days all into one pool. I used to work at a hospital that did this, and while it was casually mentioned to set aside 5 days as sick days – in practice it served to encourage people to use as few sick days as possible in order to have additional vacation days. I’m sure most of use would rather have five days on a beach/in the snow/etc. than five days of being ill.

    I can hear an argument of putting this all into one pool as being part of treating employees like adults – but I don’t think it serves to emphasize staying at home when ill.

      1. Bwmn*

        Snow bunny vs beach funny face off?

        Either way, if by planning in January to have no sick days – and that my body would follow suit – I would certainly sign up for those extra vacation days.

    1. A Bug!*

      There was a discussion recently here about how dividing up the paid time off affects different types of employees.

      Those employees who don’t use all their sick days tend to feel like they’re being punished for a strong work ethic or a healthy constitution, and would like to be able to use their own discretion when it comes to paid days off.

      For me, I think the suggestion in item 1 of the article is on-point. If an employer consistently sends home people who are visibly ill, then people will stop coming in ill because they’ll know it’s a waste of a commute.

      1. Zelos*

        I find complaints of people saying they’re “punished” for a healthy constitution rather baffling. If you stay home when you’re sick, you’re not exactly taking a vacation. Being home sick is still being sick; it’s not like they’re sipping margaritas at the beach.

        Yeah, some people can call in for minor things. For a given coworker A who comes in with a headache, there could be a coworker B who would call in sick for a headache. But then coworker B would run out of paid sick time much faster and when s/he does get really sick, s/he’d probably have to take vacation days or unpaid time off. Not exactly a triumphant win over the system, here.

        1. Poster Formerly known as Jane Doe*

          Being sick isn’t exactly a vacation, but it is a bit a break from the day to day haul. I have a super fast paced, deadline based job, and I very rarely get sick. As in, I’m sick enough to stay home MAYBE one day every ten years. As odd as it sounds, there are actually times that I’ve found myself wishing for a fever so I can take an unplanned day off just to get a break. (I’m incapable of calling in and lying and saying I’m sick when I’m not). As it stands, I get 2 weeks vacation and 1 week sick leave. I never use the sick leave, and 2 weeks vacation isn’t enough to use one day of it for a random personal day.

          1. A Bug!*

            In the comments on the earlier article I linked, there was a lot of support for the idea of “mental health days”, and it really sounds like something that might work for you.

            As you say, you don’t feel physically sick enough to stay home from work, but clearly your intense work ethic is having a psychological toll. So every once in a while, pick a day where your absence will have the least impact, and on the morning, call out sick, and see if you find benefit in it.

            It’s not a lie to say “I’m not feeling well and won’t be in today.” It might feel like a cop-out, as if you’re being intentionally misleading by implying you can’t work when you know you technically could. But it’s really not. Sure, your mental and emotional fatigue isn’t contagious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid reason to take a day to recover.

      2. Bwmn*

        I’ve mentioned this upthread – but I think the American model of thinking of sick/vacation/personal days as “benefits” as opposed to “rights” really colors this conversation. In a number of foreign countries, sick days are a right of the worker. Not a benefit. Also as a right (often defined to include carrying for family members – and yes, who a family member is can be spelled out) it’s not transferable time.

        But when something is a benefit – then why not benefit a healthier employee with the ability to use that time for something else? The main feature though of the pooled time is that management has to be much more aggressive in modeling and encouraging staff to use PTO for sick days. So really the organization either puts the days in two pools and “manages” staff by telling them what’s for what. Or the organization is relying on management to manage staff into using sick days.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          This. Historically, sick time has been a “gift” from the company. Now it is changing into an expectation. It only makes sense. How many accidents can be attributed to illness/cold med/ and so on.

          Now if it would only start to catch on in our retailing and food sectors. We don’t even what to talk about what is going on in some slaughterhouses.

          1. Bwmn*

            I worked overseas for a while – and the attitude about using sick days is so different. It’s far more tied to notions about the right to healthcare and healthy living, than strictly the notion of paid time out of the office.

            We had a slightly more involved doctor’s note policy (healthcare is nationalized and payments aren’t needed for each visit) – but I had a number of times at the doctor where he would be like “I’m giving you a note to take off three days – no going to work before!!” And it was just an idea that seemed so bizarre to me. But it was a more common idea to take off enough time to truly get better – not just get good enough to go back to the office. (we also had 16 total days off a year)

            I don’t think the US is getting to this perspective any time quick, but it is nice to seeing a change. I now work for an organization (tied to an international one, so I’m sure that’s the influence) where we have 12 sick days, totally separate from vacation/personal days. And it was a huge influence in deciding to take the job.

  16. Susan*

    My company is very good about sick time; if you are sick, you are sick, we trust you. My problem is/was that the team I work with is crazy in terms of how much work they do. It’s an ops org, they love what they do. The reason I mention this is because our team lead got very sick around October/November, ended up with pneumonia, and was still working (he works from home full time). We yelled at him for it, but otherwise couldn’t think of ways to stop him. We honestly talked about blocking his access, but as an ops person he would know his way around it! His justification was that he was in bed + bored, so why not work?

    1. Jamie*

      At a certain point in pneumonia he’s right – it can sideline you, but for me toward the end as long as I could control my positions and didn’t have to be active I could have easily have worked from home.

    2. Anonymous*

      If he felt up to it i don’t see the big deal. There’s not much difference between watching netflix on your laptop or doing a bit of work on your laptop in bed.

      1. The Clerk*

        Well, people really do recover faster if they’re not working, even if they don’t feel it. Burnout can be really subtle. I’ve pushed myself through stuff I love (writing and craft projects) and never felt tired or hurt (sewing messes with my neck and wrists and I can easily write until I have two hours of sleep left) until it was too late to do anything about it. So he could feel like he’s up to it and end up delaying his recovery, which cancels out any help he was by working.

    3. KellyK*

      Honestly, the only thing I think you needed to do in that situation was to make sure he knew he didn’t *have* to work if he didn’t feel like it. Were people available to cover his tasks, and was he aware of that? Is it an environment where people cover for each other without griping about it? If all of that’s the case, then he’s an adult, and if he says he’d rather work than watch daytime TV and play Candy Crush, I’d believe him.

  17. Elizabeth West*

    My company is very good about this. They tell you not to even wave in the direction of the building if you have a fever. Stay home and don’t spread germs!

    Exjob wanted people to get flu shots, and before I left, I was even charged with researching clinics that would come to the premises (our insurance had changed and I don’t know if that ever came to pass, because I was laid off soon after). Other than that, we had giant bottles of alcohol-based sanitizer everywhere, and people would still drag in sick. One person was Martyr Boy; he ALWAYS came in sick unless he had a migraine and I ALWAYS caught it!

    If I got sick, I had to come in and work until my backup showed up at noon; then I could go home. There were a few days I just couldn’t do it. I called in and went back to bed.

  18. TBoT*

    I could not agree more with point No. 2. Either I as a manager or my company as an employer do all of these things. But my boss perpetually comes to work sick … sometimes visibly so. No matter how many times I say to stay home (and even send people home when I realize they are at work unwell) they continue to come in because their boss’s boss does it.

  19. Chocolate Teapot*

    I had to sit next to somebody on the bus this morning performing a cough symphony. It’s bad enough when it’s a colleague!

  20. NylaW*

    This is why I love working for a health network/hospital. There is no question that we follow all of these things and more.

  21. Rebecca*

    The flu is nothing to mess around with. My company has paid sick time. About 8 years ago, the flu was particularly bad in our area, and the same “brave” people came to work sick. This, coupled with no flu shots for most of the staff, resulted in 1/2 of the office being out for nearly 2 weeks. Some ended up in the hospital.

    I was spared, thankfully, but hammered with work and phone calls. Our customers were understanding, but it was stressful.

    There’s nothing brave or cool about dragging your behind to work when you’re contagious with a potentially fatal disease. Companies need to recognize this and not penalize people for staying home when they’re sick.

  22. Poster Formerly known as Jane Doe*

    What do people think about company-mandated flu shots? My last company didn’t require it, but strongly encouraged it, and sort of bombarded you with articles like “Myths about the flu shot!” etc. They would bring someone in to do the shots, and if you didn’t sign up for a time slot, you’d be questioned/harassed.

    I don’t have a problem with vaccines in general – I’m a firm believer in their value. However, I don’t typically get the flu shot, nor do I typically get the flu, but if I thought I was coming down with something I would stay home and not bring it to the office. However, something about the way they approached forcing the issue really didn’t sit right with me.

    1. Jamie*

      I am a big believer in the flu shot personally, because for me they have proven value, but I am very uncomfortable with workplace mandated health directives as a rule.

      I worked at a place once that had a horribly invasive wellness program, but the one good thing they did was provide onsite, free flu shots for those who wanted them – no recriminations if you opted out.

      There are some positions where it makes sense to have certain vaccinations (like those who work with prisoners need to be up to date on TB and hep vaccines because the risk is so high, health care, etc.) but when it comes to making things mandatory in a normal office environment I get really uncomfortable with that.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      My company also arranges for on-site, free flu shots. It’s not mandated, but I do think that employees could feel pressured to participate.

      1. Marie*

        Is it bad if employees feel pressured to participate, though? Paternalistic, maybe, but unless they have religious objections, surely there are no bad consequences to a flu shot?

        1. A Cita*

          Not true. I can’t take the flu shot. Because of my medical situation, I react to them very badly. And I don’t need to explain that to my employer.

          And to say, I’m not weirdly opposed to vaccinations. Because of my work, I have to have a lot of them, some weird (like Yellow Fever). But there are others I need but can’t have (like Japanese Encephalitis) because of reactions.

          So yes, making it mandatory in a way that forces employees to disclose private personal health information is a bad thing.

          Plus, some people (like me) rarely get the flu (and I take the subway everyday in NYC plus the commuter train–I dare you to find a more germ-y place) and shouldn’t have to take superfluous shots.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      When it comes to mandated anything in health care I am opposed to it. I think that each person should chose what they feel is best for them. BUT, this combined with a policy of “if you are sick you must go home” would help people think about their choices.

      After one very stressful year, I started having a lot of sick time. (Uncharacteristically, usually I have very little sick time once every 18-24 months, maybe.) I decided to change what I was doing- diet, exercise, I even got rid of the chemical cleaners in my house. That resolved my employer’s concern. I think that people should be allowed to choose how they will handle their own setting.

  23. Chris*

    Considering I recently asked my boss if I could go home when I suddenly wasn’t feeling well after a team member also got terribly sick 2 days earlier, she questioned me, made me wait an hour while she chit-chatted with another manager, made me help her with what she said was one question (that turned into a 30 minute training session), I finally got to go home. I tried to rest, felt better enough to come in the next day (when deathly ill coworker also returned, still hacking), and then spent the weekend with a fever and barely able to eat anything…

    I want to plaster #1 on this list on every available surface in my office.

    1. Windchime*

      And here is part of the problem. You are an adult, and yet you had to ask if you could go home. Ridiculous, but it is part of the culture at some workplaces. My current job isn’t like this, but I worked at a place years ago where my boss questioned why I would need more than one day off with my child who had just had a tonsillectomy. He was 5 years old and I had to justify and explain why she should give me an additional day off.

      1. Chris*

        Oh I got a whole speech 2 weeks ago about how I should “ask not tell” when I said I would be late because my car died. Yes, looking for a new job.

  24. anon in tejas*

    it would be a great article to see pros/cons of separate paid sick/vacation and pto. many companies are moving in pto direction, but I think that there are pluses and minuses both way. Perhaps an article idea, Alison?

  25. Jen in RO*

    I have a question for everyone: how do you define sick? As in, sick enough to stay home/be sent home? Runny nose and sneezing? Fever? Flu? Measels? I’m genuinely curious, since, even living in one of those fabled European countries with lots of days of leave, everyone comes to work if they are *able* to work. I’ve had a cold (or a series of colds) since September and I haven’t taken one day off; if I tried to get a doctor’s note* for a runny nose I’d get laughed out the cabinet, and if I told my boss or coworkers they’d think I’m slacking. (*You can’t take sick days here without a doctor’s note.) In my opinion, which seems to be shared by most people here, you stay home if and only if your symptoms mean that you can’t get out of the house without major discomfort – such as fever – or you have a major infectious disease. Headache and sniffles mean you are in the office, and no one except the occasional germaphobe is worried that you’ll cause an epidemic.

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      I really disagree with requiring doctor’s notes for most illnesses. You have to spend time and/or money to get them, at a time when you should be recovering in bed. Also, many illnesses that keep people out of work do NOT require medical treatment. And doctor’s notes are handed out like candy anyway (at least in my experience).

      In my opinion, “sick” means that (1) I’m contagious, and/or (2) I’m not able to perform my job adequately. Headache or sniffles – I’m in the office. Head splitting migraine, fever, or nasty stomach bug – I’m staying home.

      1. Stephanie*

        Plus, if you have a high-deductible plan (like many people at OldJob), that doctor’s note can cost you $150 (or whatever your PCP charges for a regular visit).

      2. Windchime*

        Me too. I see lots of people mentioning that you shouldn’t call in sick with a “headache”; I’m guessing none of those people have ever had a migraine. Even if I could get myself to work, I wouldn’t be able to do anything because I would be busy barfing in my trash can.

      3. Bwmn*

        The sick note situation in the US does accurately reflect the sick note situation that I faced when living overseas in one of those more liberal sick day environments. As healthcare was covered by the state – you didn’t necessarily pay (or pay considerably if you had a private doctor) for each visit. Not to mention that something like food poisoning or a horrible head cold – if you had a regular enough relationship with your primary care doctor you could usually call/email and request a doctor’s note for one day without having to actually go in. But the system did lead to having an overall more involved relationship with a doctor.

        What I liked the most about the “European model” was being able to take that “final recovery day”. Instead of just taking a day (or two) during the height of illness – it was usually possible to take that second (or third) day to truly healthy.

    2. Stephanie*

      If I have sick leave left, I usually call out when I start seeing the first signs of a cold. I usually feel well enough to work that first day, but I know if I don’t rest as soon as I see symptoms, the cold will drag on forever. Unfortunately, I’m really prone to post-nasal drip after an upper respiratory infection, so I know trying to work through a cold will result in a hacking, lingering cough.

      I’ve also called out if I know I’ll be useless the entire day. I’ve done this when I’ve had insomnia (infrequent, luckily), bad cramps (I used to get awful ones), or gastric issues. I figure if I’m going to be a zombie at work or running to the bathroom all day, I’m not much use at the office.

    3. Poster Formerly known as Jane Doe*

      I am pretty lucky as I never really get any of these, but I would stay home for vomiting or a fever over 99.6. I generally wouldn’t stay home for a cold, unless it was one of those sneezing every 5 minute colds.

    4. Jamie*

      IMO if you’re sick enough that you’re coughing quite a bit or making mucus noises, but otherwise feel okay if they don’t have their own office I’d prefer they stay home.

      If you have a migraine and can’t drive and light is killing you stay home. If you have a headache come in. If I called off for every headache I’d work 3 days a year.

      If your cold is contagious and you can work from home then do that – if not and you need to come in wash your hands a lot and let it be known. It may just be a cold, but I don’t want it because someone sneezed into their hands and didn’t wash before using the copier.

      Flu generally has fever, severe aches, and you’re pretty much incapacitated…stay home and rest. Work will be there when you get back.

      Injury? If you’re still on pain meds and not thinking clearly stay home – hobble in as soon as you can.

      Digestive distress – if you would be more comfortable being near your own bathroom I would certainly be more comfortable with you there, too. I do not want to hear details of any elimination issues. Vomiting, unless for ongoing illness or morning sickness stay home – and for Gods sake don’t talk about that either.

      The rule of thumb for me is that if you’re so sick that you will be miserable at work and you need to be home you should be home resting. Or if your symptoms are so off putting to others or germy that you’re a distraction than you should be home – working if you’re up to it.

      Sniffles and the occasional light head cold most people work through.

    5. Jen RO*

      Thanks for clarifying! For some reason, I was under the impression that the AAM commentariat expects people to stay home at the first sign of sniffles. Everything you’ve said makes sense.

      And yes, doctor’s notes are stupid. I started writing a really long reply last night about my last experience, but my tablet ran out of battery and I took it as a sign that I was rambling. Let’s just say that bureaucracy sucks when you have a fever and all you want is to get the hell home. It also means that sometimes you need to take a day of PTO if you’re vomiting or having bowel trouble – doctors probably wouldn’t give you sick leave for it, and even if they did it’s not like you can spend 3 hours away from your bathroom! I really envied my former coworkers in the US who could just call and say they’re not coming in.

    6. hamster*

      I’m in the same country. It’s not not true. My family doctor is really understanding about this. And i’m quite proactive about managing my sickness. For example last year and the year before i took 1 day off for cold/flu like sympthoms.
      I mailed my manager telling him i wasn’t feeling well and will not come to work. I also called my doctor. Made an appointment and she gave me the leave. You are required to bring proof like in 10 days or so of the medical leave.
      And the second time i got ill i actually complained to my manager who complained to a colleague who came in sneezing dripping and being sick. He got another 4 or us down. Not cool. Next time he was sick , she sent him home.
      It’s not that difficult to get the time off, you just have to be aware it’s ok and possible. That is an enviroment thing.
      Ah, and 2 colleagues of mine got measles. One of them used his leave, another girl martyred on. I was spared but she did infect another 3 guys who had take also leave. So, no, i stick to my guns. You have the right not to work sick.
      On a different note, i am a horrible person at vacation taking. Last year I used 10 of my 25 vacation days. This year i am planning to take time of just to clear my head. Also, the company won’t cash them out, and is encouraging us to take our days.

  26. Jeanne*

    One of the problems with the whole sick day discussion is whether you already have a chronic illness. With my chronic illness I managed to work for 15 years before going on disability but it was really a struggle. Was I sick enough to use a sick day? The flu could take away all my sick days and leave none. One year in August I had to take a sick day that was one more than my allowance. I asked what to put on my time sheet and was told to put a sick day. Then a month later they told me they were taking away a vacation day. I fought it because management should have had their act together.

    Now I have to stay on disability because I need too much sick time. I understand that but I wish things were better for others with chronic illnesses.

  27. Brandy*

    This is insanity. I work for a company where folks can telework. My team has a few people on it that are INSANE and will text me telling me they are “on their way in” during an ice storm or what have you.

    I am a remote manager, so ALL my contact with my team is remote. I don’t give two hoots if they’re in the office or in their bed, as long as they get their work done. I *ALWAYS* tell them “absoltutely no need to come in if you can work from home”. I have one team member that drove in (emailed me saying she’d be a few minutes late because the roads were bad) and about 3o minutes found out we had actually shut down her office for non-essential personnel due to weather. She’s NOT essential personnel (job can be done 100% from home!), so I have no idea why on earth she was on the road.

    I’ve told my team to stay home when sick/ get out the office if they sound like garbage over the phone/ head out as soon as they can if the weather report looks bad. Honestly, I’m two time zones apart and I have no idea what local weather conditions are like. I can’t see if a team member looks like a hot mess. But I don’t know what else I can do to let these crazies know it’s OK to stay home! (forget telling them to take a sick day. we have unlimited PTO! TAKE IT IF YOU HAVE THE FLU!)

    I seriously can’t imagine i come off like a “work is so important you must risk life and health”—but apparently these crazy fools get that impression from elsewhere in the company.

  28. Stephanie*

    1. My first job out of college was at the federal government, where we got equal amounts of sick and annual leave. Usually, people would end up with crazy amounts of sick leave (it carried over and couldn’t be donated or cashed out). We worked on quotas that would be adjusted downward for sick or annual leave. People (myself included) would sometimes use sick leave to lower their quotas (but still work the day anyway).

    2. Next job, we got two sick days per year. The company thought it was being very generous by allowing employees to go slightly negative in sick days. Consequently, my office was a petri dish. I remember one coworker had some hacking cough for at least month. O_o.

  29. Volcano*

    I’m in the UK, and while we’ve not been suffering with the US’s polar vortex, we are having the wettest winter in 250 years, with obvious flooding problems. Our office plumbing has been catastrophically affected, and so we’ve got portakabin bathrooms outside. There is no hot water, and not a great deal of sanitation.
    One of my co-workers came in after a bout of D&V, while still infectious, because her boss gets dickish about these things. This has worked out about as well as you’d expect, and an easy third of our company was off sick with varying levels of gastroenteritis.
    Now we’re getting into flu season, and the dickish boss remains so. The only thing that might get him to back off for a while is a pronouncement from senior management, most of whom have suddenly developed a comprehensive schedule of Serious Offsite Meetings and won’t say anything.


  30. kittycookie*

    I think the elephant in the room is the fact that people feel compelled to come in to work out of fear for their jobs, no matter how ill they are.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Exactly. There are enough harsh employers out there that it makes it hard to understand when the new employer is sincere and honest.

      Too many times an employee hears, “oh take the time you need”.
      And taking the time bites her later.

  31. Girasol*

    At Exjob I had a boss who would say, at the first sneeze on anyone’s part, “You sick? Go home!” because one of my coworkers was immune-compromised. At current job, which has a similarly generous PTO plan, we record PTO as “planned” and “unplanned,” with the understanding that people who take “unplanned” have a poor work ethic. So people come to work sick and go out of their way to make sure to let people see that they have a good work ethic. My spouse is now immune-compromised. His doctor says he won’t die from cancer but from catching an everyday bug and having it develop into pneumonia. I don’t want to bring that home to him for no other reason than that someone was afraid of what their boss would think if they used the leave that they were given.

  32. Brisvegan*

    I feel endlessly sorry for people in the US. The fact that you don’t get leave or usually up to only 10 days per year seems appallingly harsh, compared to what I am used to.

    I am in Australia and am in full time employment. We have mandatory 4 weeks per year paid rec leave for full time employees and contract part-time employees (pro rata for part time employees, eg if you work 2 days per week, you would have leave for 8 days) and additional sick leave. Unfortunately casual (I think you would call them hourly?) employees don’t get leave, but are usually paid more per hour. Most casuals working for decent employers would be allowed or encouraged to take annual breaks.

    My sick leave is 10 days per year, not mixed with rec or bereavement/family carers leave (all of which are in different pools). It also banks from year to year. I can tele-commute and work from home if I am a bit ill with a cold, but am not debilitated. I am also rarely ill. After 10 years at my job, I have around 90 days of sick leave banked, which I hope fervently never to need. (It doesn’t get paid out or anything if you leave.) My work also provides free flu shots each year.

    In addition, I have a bank of 60 days of long service leave that I am now eligible for (more than 10 years at one employer), that would be paid out if I leave or am terminated.

    A previous wonderful manager of mine was able to use similar leave banks to support her family when she became very ill with cancer. It meant she didn’t have to make instant decisions about her future while deathly ill. (Ultimately, she resigned, but this and some income insurance + unpaid leave, gave her a year’s grace to undergo treatment and not face unemployment).

    I am relatively lucky that I can bank leave, but the minimum here for contract and permanent employees in almost any industry would be 4 weeks paid leave + 5-10 paid sick days + paid public holidays. Australia also has a (barely) liveable minimum wage and an economy that continued to grow even in the GFC. I can only wish that your unions and workers eventually succeed in getting decent treatment. Don’t believe the industry bull that it would be impossible and send everyone broke.

  33. Ask a Manager* Post author

    The fact that you don’t get leave or usually up to only 10 days per year seems appallingly harsh, compared to what I am used to.

    Except that that isn’t right. Most people get leave and often more than 10 days per year. In professional fields, you frequently get much more, and as you move into increasingly senior roles, you tend to get increasing amounts of leave (and flexibility).

    Your example of 4 weeks paid leave + 5-10 paid sick days + paid public holidays is certainly feasible for professional fields here, particularly at better companies or at senior level.

    1. Brisvegan*

      That sounds much more reasonable! I mostly see people from the US talking about much lower leave entitlements.

      I had the, obviously false, impression that you were generally pretty low on leave.

      Someone saying that, in theory, it could be no days blew my mind. (I know that would not be competitive and would not attract staff.) The 4 weeks + sick leave is a national legal standard that we all take too much for granted down here. It was a hard fought union struggle to get it, fortunately before my 40 something self was born.

      1. Windchime*

        There are definitely people who don’t get sick leave; my son works in a grocery store and has no benefits whatsoever. If he calls in sick, he is out of luck unless he can pick up another shift.

        I just added up what I get. I’ve been at this employer for 3 years, and I get 23 days a year of PTO. We have 4 or 5 paid holidays and that’s separate from PTO. I also have several hundred hours in my Extended Illness account and if I am sick for more than 3 days, then my pay will start coming out of Extended Illness.

        So that’s kind of the flip side. None of this is mandated by law, but my employer has made the 100 Best Places to Work list 2 out of the last 3 years, partially because they know that they need to offer good benefits in order to keep good people. I wish more companies felt this way.

    2. Brisvegan*

      By the way, thanks for your awesome site. I have a lot from it that is very useful for my work. I have recommended it to every manager and job-seeker I know.

    3. A Cita*

      I wonder what the actual numbers are. While it’s true that some places/industries offer more leave, so many do not. If you count all the service industry jobs with almost no leave, the professional jobs where 10 day leaves are common, industries where leave is on the books but is looked down upon if taken, those were you’re never really on leave (constant email, texts, calls, etc), and small companies which are notorious for not providing much leave, what would be the proportion of companies that offer generous leave? I have no facts and would love to know.

      The good thing about mandatory leave is that leave then isn’t restricted to certain job categories or industries, in which socio-cultural and economic barriers limit advancement into those positions for groups of people.

    4. Ann O'Nemity*

      In 2012, 66% of workers in the USA had access to paid sick leave and 74% had access to paid vacations. Among full-time workers, 79% had access to paid sick leave and 87% had access to paid vacation. Among part-time workers, 25% have access to paid sick leave and 34% have access to paid vacation.

      After one year, workers receive an average of 8 days of sick leave and 10 days of vacation (full-time get 8 and 10 respectively). After 5 years, workers receive an average of 9 days of sick leave and 14 days of vacation (full-time get 9 and 15 respectively). After 10 years, workers average 9 days of sick leave and 17 of vacation (full-time 10 and 17). After 20 years, workers get 10 days of sick and 20 days of vacation (full-time 10 and 20).

      Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012.

      1. A Cita*

        Thanks, Ann!

        I wonder what the industry break down is? And if the length of stay in the workforce that correlates with increased vacation time correlates with advancement into senior positions within a single industry or switching industries? I just like the details.

        Thanks for doing the research!

  34. Not admitting who I am*

    Our company gives 1/2 day of sick time accrual per month, so six days per year, but we do have rollover – you can have up to 120 hours banked. (If you have 120, you don’t accrue any more.)

    Most of us have about 120 hours, because TAKING sick time is kind of a nightmare. We are all loaded with so much work that we will be working double-time after sick leave, and our boss pushes back on it. (I once called out sick because I had been vomiting so much the night before that I had to go to the ER and needed a bag of saline rehydration and was taking anti-nausea pills. I hadn’t been able to sleep until 3 am, I was calling at 7 am, and my boss asked me, “You’re going to work from home today, right?”)

  35. tmarie*

    At my last job we accrued vacation time every pay period. I was up at 160 hours/year. On January 1st we would receive our sick bank (mine was 80 hours/year) and eleven personal holidays. The thing we had to remember was to save hours for late in the year holidays. All national holidays came out of the 11 personal holiday bank.

    When I got laid off I lost the accrued sick time I had banked, had used up my personal holidays as vacation earlier in the year and was paid out my vacation hours. I miss that job.

  36. Anne*

    Thank you for this article, Alison – I’m currently on my second day at home with a terrible headache. I hate feeling lazy and cruddy. Very timely reminder that it’s better to stay home and get better than to infect my coworkers. :)

  37. Anonymous*

    The bane of my working life has been the employers that use Bradford Scores….. basically it is Days X Instances X Instances. 3 days in a row off: 3 points. 3 days seperately: 27 points.

    I have worked for people that no matter the reason if you hit their cap they’d give you a warning and not consider the situation behind the score.

    I have however also worked for people for whom the score is purely a marker to have a discussion and they will work with you to rectify and do the best for both parties.

  38. Carla*

    If we are sick we have to find someone willing to cover our shift. If no one does, the supervisor says it is our responsibility to work our shift. I was diagnosed today with type A & B of the flu, as well as all 4 of my children. So I will have to go to work sick & spread the flu virus around to the public! Not a good!!?

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