Sick at Work: The Dangerous New Trend & How to Avoid It

by Gunita Smirnova in — November 2018
Every winter we are faced with the flu epidemic and work slows down. How employees react to being ill tells us a lot about a company’s culture. Here is how to make sure your organisation is immune to the dangerous trend of coming to work ill.

Life without a Buffer

Employees often come to the office with a runny nose, a cough and sometimes even a high fever. The justification for coming to work sick is almost always the same: “You have to be there!” Though one may think that it shows responsibility to come to work sick, such behaviour is neither normal nor advisable. Being ill at work not only threatens your colleagues but also prolongs the period of recovery and increases the risk of having a more serious health problem.

Nowadays, when almost everyone has a laptop at home, sickness no longer seems like such a blow to productivity. After all, you can always answer your e-mails while sitting at home under a warm blanket. Despite the option to work remotely, everyone has a colleague who comes to work with a headache and hoarse voice out of principle. Does this really demonstrate responsibility or the indispensability of an employee? Why do some colleagues get sick more often than others? Can we just blame it on weak immunity?

Blog 2018 Sickatwork

An Egotist or a Victim?

Though one might expect a flu epidemic in the winter, illness can also indicate other problems in the in the company. Is there a department where employees are sick more often? Is there a manager whose subordinates systematically come to work with a runny nose and high fever?

Such behaviours can tell a lot about the atmosphere in a team. If the employees are frequently ill, it is time to think about whether there is something more than meets the eye.

  • Organizational culture. Fast-growing companies with a lot of rapid change tend to have a lot of ill employees. Although many people like this work environment, it can lead to physical and emotional overload, fatigue and a decrease in immunity.
  • Fear of losing the job. Coming to work instead of being home and getting better can signal a fear of losing the job. What if my colleagues can do without me? What if someone else can do the job? What if I have to give control to others? Such behaviour may indicate that the employee underestimates or overestimates his or her value in the company.
  • Prolonged stress. To be able to function normally, the body needs rest. However, this is not always possible, especially when serious problems are addressed. At such moments, the body can panic and force a rest period by getting sick.
  • Bad role model. If the manager comes to work sick, she or he signals to employees that they are also expected to come to work sick.
  • The dark side of technology. Often sickness may also indicate that resting at home is allowed only in theory, but not in practice. Working remotely is not the same as recovering from the flu. It is still work even if you are sitting in bed and drinking tea while answering emails. A sick body needs emotional rest, too.
  • Low self-esteem. Not everyone is able to differentiate their needs and desires from what is required by the workplace. Often, the desire to prove yourself and your indispensability is stronger than the obligation to consciousness towards your health and well-being.
  • Habits from the crisis. Many bad work habits persist since the financial crisis, when all possible austerity measures were taken to save the company. In many workplaces, such a life without buffers continues even today. The to-list is chock-full with no opportunity to change or postpone anything. However, the crisis is long gone, and we should plan so that one employee’s illness cannot paralyse the entire work process.
  • Avoidance tactic. An overly long list of tasks, unpleasant colleagues, problems and things that you do not want to do – you can avoid all these things by getting sick. Even when the illness is an unconscious or psychosomatic reaction, it points to problems in the organisation.
  • Egotism. Some do not worry about bringing germs to the office because they are already sick and unconcerned about infecting others.

How to avoid getting ill?

  • Admit that you can get ill. Some people just have to learn to say, “I can get ill” and “I can rest”. If the business stops because one person cannot come to work, this problem should be addressed by the management rather than the employee. If the work stops due to the manager’s illness, the manager must ask himself or herself whether he or she has enough confidence in his or her subordinates.
  • Get better without a computer and phone. Work from home is still work. To shorten the illness, put aside the computer and the phone for one or two days. Rest, especially if stress has weakened your immunity.
  • Objectively assess your health. Remember that responsibility for your own health is in your own hands. You should not wait until your manager or a colleague recommends going home. Protecting your health is a sign of responsibility.
  • Support others if necessary. If there is someone in the team who is too sick to work, you have to get over politeness and ask the sick colleague to go home.
  • Forget about indispensability. Illnesses, accidents, family crises and other unpleasant events are unpredictable. What happens if more than one employee cannot fulfil their duties? How long can a company “cover” a worker’s absence? Businesses should be organised so they can cover absences.
  • Be a good example for kids and colleagues. When you regularly visit your doctor, get enough rest and exercise, and stay home when ill, you provide a good example to colleagues and children about how to take care of your health.