To Work or Not to Work? That is the Question!

For employees not feeling up to par, the decision to stay home from work is not always easy. Is there any guidance out there about when to stay home from work? spoke to Thomas Fekete, MD, Section Chief of Infectious Diseases at Temple University, and identified guidelines to help employees decide.

You have a contagious illness. Most of us are wrong about when to stay home. “The most contagious period is at the beginning, before you get really sick,” Fekete says. So, if you go to bed feeling slightly sick, and wake up feeling under the weather, that’s the day to stay home. The following days, when you actually feel sicker, are days when you are less likely to share your contagious illness.

You’re worse than you think. “Most of us are sicker than we think we are,” says Fekete. The problem is the first six to 12 hours, when symptoms can get markedly worse. By the time you start to feel really rotten you might already be at work. One of the measures of health we look at is fever, but that can be easily managed with medication, says Fekete. If your fever is accompanied by weakness and confusion, stay home. Fekete recommends making the call yourself on day one, but if you think you need to stay home for a second day, call your doctor for advice.

Your workplace isn’t “sick friendly.” Most people can power through at work without making their cold or flu worse or getting other people sick—if they have the right environment. But you have to consider where you work. Some factors that might make it worth your while to stay home include:

  • Limited access to a bathroom
  • Limited ability to wash your hands or dispose of tissue
  • Working directly with the public or with food that goes to the public
  • You work outside or in a strenuous job

Your medications interfere with your job. Some people can take a cold or flu medication without side effects while others may struggle with daytime sleepiness. Even if you’re just foggy-headed, “that’s not the day you want to approve the company budget,” says Fekete.

Your kids are getting sick. “Kids staying home is, on average, better for society because kids are much better at transmitting these things among themselves,” points out Fekete. So if you are under the weather and you suspect they are too, stay home with the kids and take your entire family out of the contagious-illness loop.

Whatever you decide, remember that the risks of working sick usually outweigh the benefits.