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Going to Work Sick

When it comes to working while sick, no one is immune. A majority of working adults, ranging from jobs in the food industry to elected officials, say they will still go to work when they have a cold of the flu. The loss of personal productivity or mistakes made as a result of health-related issues in employees, now coined by researchers as “presenteeism,” can cost a company more than $150 billion a year- so why are employees and businesses so insistent on working through the symptoms?

According to a study conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, low pay and limited sick days can have a serious impact on employees’ willingness to take the day off while under the weather. In the study, 65% of working adults who self-reported themselves as having low-paying jobs, said they go to work always or most of the time when they have the flu- compared to 55% of adults who reported having average-paying jobs and 48% with high-paying jobs.

The difference in these categories can be explained by the difference in workplace benefits- including health insurance (only 60% of low-paying workers are offered health insurance, compared to 84% of average and high-paying workers) and paid sick days (only 38% of low-paying workers are offered paid sick days, compared to 72% of average and high-paying workers).


Workers at risk of contamination

Many of these low-paying workers have jobs in industries such as health and food, extending the possibility of contamination beyond their immediate co-workers. For example, 140 individuals- including members of the Boston College basketball team- fell ill in 2015 after eating a Chipotle in Boston where one employee worked while sick.  While the Food and Drug Administration has a Food Code, that states that food industry workers need to stay home at least 24 hours after their symptoms go away, not all states have adopted the rule.

While limited health benefits and sick days definitely play a factor in employees’ likelihood to work while sick, a CDC report also revealed a more unexpected factor- leaving co-workers short-staffed. While there’s a definite divide across pay-grades, there seems to be a just as strong divide across workplace cultures- which brings us to our next question. Is going to work when you’re sick a predominantly American idea?

Currently, the US is the only country without federally mandated paid sick days, leaving many policymakers hopeful for the passing of the Healthy Family Act- which would require businesses with 15 or more employees to allow an hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. While this still wouldn’t solve the “American work ethic” that drives employees to work despite illness and available health benefits, it would be a step in the right direction for workplace health and rights.

When Hillary Clinton had to leave a 9/11 memorial service due to symptoms from pneumonia during her campaign last fall- the public was reminded of previous candidates’ balance of their health and their responsibilities as an elected official. For example, George H.W. Bush attending a state dinner in Japan in 1992, resulting in him vomiting on the Japanese prime minster, and John F. Kennedy concealing his Addison’s disease from the public during his time in office.



Our elected officials’ insistence on working through the symptoms largely reflects the culture of our country’s workaholic mentality, as seen reinforced in various studies and public policies. As one survey found, US corporate managers often equated working longer hours with attributes such as “dedication, responsibility, and hard-working.”

However, it’s important those qualities pale when employees’ quality of work suffers from presenteeism and the potential contamination of your coworkers and customers is at stake. Before simply “taking one for the team” and working through the symptoms, consider the possible hazards and talk with your company about health benefits and options. Remember, sometimes that added stress in the workplace and long hours in the office can even prolong your symptoms- risking the possibility for you to be sick even longer. It’s time for us to shed the prestige of workaholics to finally be sick and tired of working while sick and tired.

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If you are in crisis, call 988 to talk with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, text HOME to 741741 to connect to a free crisis counselor, or go to your nearest emergency room.