The Real Reason So Many of Us Go to Work When We're Sick

About 94 percent of American workers take defensive measures to avoid getting sick at work, according to a 2014 survey. (Photo: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock)

Do you go to work when you have a cold or the flu? According to a recent survey from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, about 65 percent of working adults in low-paying jobs go to work when they are sick, and 48 percent of adults in high-paying jobs do. This statistic seems even worse: Half of restaurant workers and more than half of workers in medical jobs say they go to work when they have a cold or the flu.

For anyone who has worked with other human beings, this should come as no surprise — and maybe you are even one of those people who always goes to work when they are ill.

There are two simple reasons why you shouldn't go to work sick, of course: Your own health and that of the people around you. Obviously, bringing sickness-causing germs into a workplace exposes all of the people you work with to those germs, and especially for those with already-compromised immune systems and the elderly, this can mean something more serious than just passing the common cold along. Anyone can develop chronic bronchitis or a months-long cough that starts with a cold, but those people whose immune systems aren't as strong are especially at risk, and by coming to work with an illness, you are directly putting them in harm's way.

But most of us know that already. So why are many people going to work sick?

There are two main reasons. The first is that workers aren't given paid sick days, so they lose needed income if they stay home from work. According to the Harvard survey mentioned above, only 38 percent of workers in low-paying jobs get paid sick time, and a March 2016 study estimated 50 million Americas workers don't have paid sick leave. But this employee benefit can slow the spread of disease. As the New York Times reports:

Cities and states that require employers to offer paid sick leave — Washington, D.C.; Seattle; New York City; and Philadelphia, as well as Connecticut, California, Massachusetts and Oregon — have fewer cases of seasonal flu than other comparable cities and states. Flu rates would fall 5 percent if paid sick leave were universal. According to one estimate, an additional seven million people contracted the H1N1 flu virus in 2009 because employees came to work while infected. The illnesses led to 1,500 additional deaths.

Another benefits of paid sick time, according to the Times: Workers treat illnesses or injuries sooner than they would if they had no paid sick time, which keeps more serious problems at bay, lowering health insurance costs.

The second main reason that people work when they're sick is because doing so means someone else has to do their work, or they'll have even more work to do when they return. According to the Harvard survey, 39 percent of workers say there wouldn’t be enough people to cover their work, while 32 percent say their workload made it too hard to take sick days off. Of course, employers should organize working structures so that this isn't the case, but unfortunately it's very common.

According to a 2014 survey by NSF International, 25 percent of workers come to work sick because their boss expects them to. Not respecting your employees' health and decisions about keeping well is, of course, not legal, but that doesn't mean that people don't do it anyway.

Most workers recognize that their fellow employees, for any number of reasons, need to come to work even when they are unwell. And, of course, there are precautions we can take. Survey results indicate nearly all (94 percent) of American workers take some form of precaution when coming in contact with a sick coworker, including:

  • washing their hands after coming in contact with a sick coworker (87 percent)
  • using hand sanitizer (68 percent)
  • avoiding their sick coworker (65 percent)
  • disinfecting their workspace (44 percent)
  • taking a vitamin (39 percent)
  • avoiding using common areas like break rooms (32 percent)