I work as a salaried employee for a software company in the UK, I've been there about 1.5 years. Their primary market is consultancy - we get assigned clients, travel to their offices for the work week and travel back for the weekend. This might sound familiar to you. I refer to the company throughout as A1 Software.

Every time we call in sick, upon returning to work, HR schedules a one to one meeting with us. Up until the last time I had a cold I thought that this was a nice practice: the tone of the meetings was friendly. A1 Software asked, for example, whether there were any underlying problems that they could help me to overcome so that I was ill less often. This makes sense to me, it's in everyone's interest for them to care in this way. The last time I had this meeting it was my fourth in the span of one year and the tone was decidedly different. A1 Software told me that they thought I was taking "too many sick days" and further implied that I might be using them to, for example, go to daytime sports games* (I wasn't).

This perplexed me. I made the following points:

  • I don't think that four colds (or, alternatively, five individual days) off sick in one year is truly exceptional, on average.
  • As a knowledge worker if I come into work when I'm not thinking straight (because, for example, I have a cold) there's a real possibility that I do more harm than good. In software we have convenient concepts to point at like "bugs" and "technical debt". When I'm sick I incur these things unintentionally and cost the business money.
  • When you come into work with a cold you increase the risk of spreading it around, costing the business more money in lost productivity.

A1 Software replied that:

  • A1 Software "holds its employees to a higher standard".
  • Because we "don't work very many hours ... [we're] ... expected not to be ill as often".

We work 37.5 hour weeks which is full-time in the UK.

I value my job, it's interesting, and I said as much. I told A1 Software that colds weren't debilitating and that if it was really important to them that I cut down on my absences I would come into work when I was ill, that's fine by me. They replied: "oh no, call in sick when you're sick!" I assume this was because they were trying to stop just short of doing something illegal. Disclaimer: IANAL but a quick Google makes this look bad for sure.

The reason for this question is that I'm off sick, in bed, right now. I'm anticipating a similar meeting to the one described above when I return to work and I want to push back, emphatically, against what I view as an illogical business practice.

I'd understand if I'd taken many more days off but I'm just over the national average. I'd understand if the business lost significant revenue when I was sick because, for example, the client ends up paying for fewer hours of our time, that's not how it works.

I am overly cynical and currently not thinking very clearly. Is there anything I'm missing? Is there a logical reason that A1 Software would act like this?

I've accepted The Snark Knight's answer because I think it most adequately answers the question. I'm grateful for all the responses though, thank-you for your divisive opinions. A lot of the responses have pointed out that my behaviour does look suspicious, fair enough then, I'll pipe down.

I'll clarify a couple of things I've been asked in the comments (in case you're curious):

How many days sick do your coworkers average?

I did a quick straw poll and the mean was 4.5 days, skewed artificially higher by a long-term absence. Those who pointed out that this skew was probably inflating the national average I found were absolutely right.

Do your colleagues all get treated the same way?


Do they get doctor's notes even for <5 sick days?

No, this isn't the done thing in the UK.

Why might the company have developed the idea that you were at sporting events?

I have no idea, I don't like sports and have never attended a local sports event. I suspect that the salient point was that they were suspicious generally, not specifically.

Were most of your days off on Fridays/Mondays?

40% of them were.

Did any of these affect a client or work deadline?

Not that I know of. I wasn't working on a project or for a client for most (circa 60%) of the absences. For the others I made reasonable efforts to expedite somebody else picking up my work and I don't think I've ever caused any problems with a tight deadline.

Does HR generally treat you or your coworkers with this level of suspicion?

I've heard similar stories from several coworkers.

You take single days off sick and your symptoms are gone straight away?

Not generally. This week for example I was sniffly and I had a painless cough for a few days, I called in sick when I developed full-blown flu symptoms.

*: The sports events thing was an implied threat and ran thus: "the days you're taking off don't follow any pattern so I can't even match them up with local sports events haha". It was played as a joke and I laughed along in the meeting but I did not take it as one.

  • 8
    Comment deletions on this post are being discussed on meta. Before commenting, ask yourself if you're contributing anything useful and whether your intended comment is what comments are for, or if you just want to vent or share your own opinion or answer without writing an answer. Please see What "comments" are not... for more details.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 21:02
  • You work for a crappy company. That's what you're missing.
    – user91988
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 19:35

17 Answers 17


Yes you are missing something: HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

Every last meeting like this, they are building a file on you. The proof of this is the tone of the last meeting demonstrated. The next step is likely to start requiring doctor's notes.

The fact that they suggested you might be attending sporting events indicates that they are VERY suspicious of you and are taking an adversarial stance. If less work meant less sickness, then pensioners should be immortal by that reasoning.

Something not good is going on, it sounds like you are being targeted for disciplinary action. You may be dealing with an office gossip as well. Where did they get the idea that you are not sick on your sick time?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation, including explanations of votes in both directions, has been moved to chat (30 comments so far). Continue the discussion there, not here. Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 19:12

It must first be addressed that under UK law, you can "self certify" for up to 7 days. This means you call in sick and you diagnose yourself. Anything above that requires a doctors note. It also means that, in reality, unless you're under a review specifically about your attendance, they're not supposed to accuse you of being anything other than ill.

The return to work interview is standard practice. It's more to cover their backs than it is yours, as they will record your absence and review it during yearly employment reviews.

5 days sick in a year isn't high. 5 occurrences of being off work sick is high. It's a subtle difference in the way HR have worded it, but I would assume they've used the Bradford Factor when calculating your time off.

The Bradford Factor is a simple formula used by employers to calculate how much time, in reality, an employee has off. Your "BF" is calculated by:

  • (Number of occasions sick)2 x Total number of days absent

In your case you say you've had 5 sick days off in a year. But you also mention that that's over 4 occasions. So if we calculate your time off as so:

  • 42 x 5

That gives you a score of 80. Under the Bradford Factor this is considered normal.

However, if you had 5 days off on 5 separate occasions, your score would be 125 which is considered high.

In the UK there is an expectation that unless your leg is falling off you should be in work. I don't agree with that, and if I have a cold where I'm constantly coughing or tired I will not go to work. If work is particularly bad, I will work from home. But, as far as I am concerned, I am putting others at risk of catching an illness which could and would incur a number of colleagues falling ill. This also goes for sickness and diarrhea, as the bugs that cause these are extremely contagious. Which is a concern especially if a member of your team is pregnant.

I too am a software developer and can emphasize with you on your description of being ill while working. I've worked in many industries, in many offices, for many different people, and having a day off because of the flu has never been an issue.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Jane S
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 22:00
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    I've always thought the Bradford factor was pretty much BS, I know our company has stopped using it (though dont know why). As a software lead nothing infuriated me more than the one guy who used to come in with a cold and infect the whole team. I can afford to bench a single player, I can't afford to bench the whole team
    – jk.
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 19:34
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    I've never heard of something the this Bradford Factor before. Is it used in the US as well?
    – thanby
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 14:40
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    Nice answer. Just want to comment on the Bradford factor. The square inside doesn't make any sense at all. I guess there is no good rationale for it and the whole formula/factor is just BS. Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 9:02
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    This "Bradford factor" thing sounds like absolute bullshit. So if someone has a cold for one day, five times a year, and another guy is gone for 125 consecutive days, they are equal? And someone gone for 16 days, comes back not quite cured, leaves after a week for another 16 days, is four times worse than if he hadn't returned? You can't get any more stupid than that.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 12:39

They might act like this because it's not illegal, and someone in HR had the bright idea to put pressure on employees who dare to take more than a day or two sick leave per year. They might be trying to reduce some internal cost metric associated with employee sick leave.

Whatever the reason, while their actions may not be strictly speaking illegal, they are obviously working in terms of making one think twice before taking sick leave. They clearly have the company's and not your interests in mind.

However, implying that you might be engaging in some activities that are against company policy without any evidence to support this may be bordering on harassment and so they might be in violation of their own policy regarding professional conduct and safe working environment. You might want to read up on the law regarding that and bring some talking points to the next HR meeting.

I believe sick leave is a benefit which is part of your benefit package and that an employee should feel free to use, just like vacation leave and other benefits. Unused sick leave is often not paid out upon separation from the company, so you better use it. It is completely acceptable to not only use sick leave for physical illness but also for mental health -- a "mental health day" is not only healthy and good for you, but it is also good for your productivity and long-term effectiveness if it helps you destress, refresh, and come to work in a better disposition, with better motivation to do good work.

Moreover, you shouldn't have to ever explain the reasons behind sick leave to anyone, unless the employer has a clear written policy to this effect (assuming it is legal for them to ask this -- sickness is part of your medical history which is protected by privacy laws). Otherwise, "I am not feeling well and taking a sick day" should be sufficient 99% of the time.

I encourage you to educate yourself about your rights regarding sick leave to which you are legally entitled, and on policies which HR might be violating by pressuring you and making accusatory statements, and to stand up for yourself in the next meeting. It does not sound like you are abusing the sick policy, you are merely using the benefit which is part of your benefits package, just like vacation and salary. Hopefully they will get the point and consider dealing with you more trouble than it's worth. Good luck!

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    I'm not sure if "sick leave" is a benefit in the UK, it might be a EU thing where you can take as much sick leave as you need, whenever you need it, and it's not in any package.
    – Erik
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 14:39
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    @Erik: The EU has minimum standards on sick leave, but a quick reading suggests they only kick in after 16 days (and last up to one year), and only cover 80% of the regular wage. Countries are allowed to have higher standards, companies can offer benefits on top of that, and finally may make individual exceptions. E.g. Netherlands has 1 day unpaid, and many companies either offer 0 days as a benefit or in informal practice.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 15:13
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    Sick leave is not a benefit in the UK, it is a right. Whether it's paid, at what rate, and for how long, is set down statutorily, but many companies offer better terms, which could be construed as a "benefit".
    – AndyT
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 15:22
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    @A.S Paid sick leave is not a right in the U.S. Security of your job when off for health reasons is legally protected, but such leave doesn't legally have to be paid (though most companies do anyway.)
    – reirab
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 19:06
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    The thing which @AndyT's comment doesn't IMO communicate effectively (and your response to him reinforces that impression) is that there is no such thing as "unused sick leave". Attempting to apply US thinking about sick leave to the UK is a category error. Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 19:37

The last time I had this meeting it was my fourth in the span of one year and the tone was decidedly different. A1 Software told me that they thought I was taking "too many sick days"

It sounds like they are using the Bradford factor. The formula is S2 x D which for you with 4 absences and 5 days is 80. This is in the typical "Consider Issuing a Verbal Warning" threshold. I expect this is why they are harsher.

...and further implied that I might be using them to, for example, go to daytime sports games.

I'm not sure what you mean by implied here - if they accused you of this, they are accusing you of misconduct, and this webpage may have more information for you. If they didn't say it outright and it is your interpretation then we need a little bit more information as to exactly what they said.

I don't think that four colds (or, alternatively, five individual days) off sick in one year is truly exceptional, on average.

Not exceptional, but certainly above the mean of 4.7 days off. According to the ONS, "minor illnesses (such as coughs and colds) were the most common reason for sickness absence in 2016, accounting for approximately 24.8% of the total days lost".

As a knowledge worker if I come into work when I'm not thinking straight (because, for example, I have a cold) there's a real possibility that I do more harm than good.

I do see this argument, and it's not a bad one but the average cost of you missing a day is quite possibly higher than you realise - depending on your role, your absence can have a large impact on the work others can do.

When you come into work with a cold you increase the risk of spreading it around, costing the business more money in lost productivity.

I (personally) consider this to be the biggest issue. Working with a cold, while unpleasant, is not catastrophe. Your work will still be of a reasonable quality. However, infecting other people is unbelievably antisocial. I have a cold right now, and I have a fairly good idea of exactly who gave it to me. There is still an attitude of "suck it up" attitude to illness - unless you're missing a limb you should be in work. This is a damaging attitude, but your situation is not a good place to be challenging societal norms.

We work 37.5 hour weeks which is full-time in the UK.

Full-time in the UK is a poorly defined amount - a full time worker is normally considered to work more than 35 hours (which you do). The average full time worker is close to 37.2 hours per week, so their argument of you not working many hours is wrong.

They replied: "oh no, call in sick when you're sick!"

Yes, as the link you gave says, "If you fall ill, you are entitled to take time off work until you recover". They have to allow this.

The reason for this question is that I'm off sick, in bed, right now.

This means your bradford factor is now 150. This falls into the typical threshold for "Consider Issuing a First Written Warning", so when you come back expect an even more serious response.

I'd understand if I'd taken many more days off but I'm just over the national average.

As other answers have said, the national average includes long term sickness which massively drags the average up. I expect you're quite a long way above the average.

Is there a logical reason that A1 Software would act like this?

Yes - you've had a lot of absence, across many occasions, which is disruptive to your work and to the work of others. This can cost them a significant amount of money and time.

In addition, they are following internal guidelines (the Bradford factor seems to be part of this). If they aren't consistent, they open themselves up to discrimination. If they are always relaxed about absence then someone will start to take advantage of this.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 19:15

I don't think that four colds (or, alternatively, five individual days) off sick in one year is truly exceptional, on average.

According to The Guardian's health expert

"If people didn't go into work when they had colds, the UK economy would grind to a halt over winter," he says. It isn't selfish to take your cold to work with you because most colds, he points out, are caught at home, where we spend hours huddled up to each other on the sofa and in bed. Colds are so ubiquitous you can't escape them and if you are exposed to a cold virus it doesn't mean you will inevitably catch it.

According to A leading UK pharmacist

If you've got a tickle in the back of your throat or it feels as if you have postnasal drip, your cough is probably from allergies or the common cold. But unless you've got other symptoms such as aches and raised temperature, get dressed and go to work!

According to the NHS

You're infectious until all your symptoms have gone. This usually takes a week or two.

So taking one day off is not protecting anybody. The appropriate precautions are listed as

To reduce the risk of spreading a cold:

  • wash your hands often with warm water and soap
  • use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze
  • bin used tissues as quickly as possible

Nothing there about isolating yourself from all other (or selective groups of) humans.

Is there a logical reason that A1 Software would act like this?

Unless A1 Software is run by an AI, your expectation is unreasonable and illogical.


They† think it is strange that you take a day off when you have a cold.

You do it often enough that someone† has become concerned about this.

If they have ulterior motives, we random intertubians wouldn't know exactly what they are for sure.


† Some microbe-infested meat-brained neuron-shedding human in the organisation. Like all us non-bots reading this sentence.

  • 12
    There's a difference between having a full-blown cold, where you're constantly coughing and sneezing and find it difficult to get work done, and a little sniffle.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 17:24
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    @Neuromancer your job is not to protect a hypothetical minority of people who are already under intense scrutiny by their doctors.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 0:07
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    Seriously, whatever source came up with that cold spread is silly. We tracked a cold spreading through the office and made a case to management there is not enough sick leave because people aren't using it to squash the cold. Had the first guy not come in sick with it we would have lost less. (It got to weak people (not me) who were out for days).
    – Joshua
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 21:13
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    @Joshua: If you read advice from medical professionals you'll see that a cold victim is infectious for about a day before developing any symptoms and for about three or four days afterwards. That means that taking one day off work when you start to feel ill is ineffective at preventing infection of others. By the time you are aware you have a cold, it's too late! Most medical advice is that covering your nose with a tissue when sneezing and regular hand-washing (by everybody) is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus. Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 21:48
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    @RedGrittyBrick "Coughs and sneezes spread diseases" - an old saying but still very true. Although people might be theoretically "infectious" without symptoms, they are for sure much more actively infecting others when symptoms start to show. Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 10:18

Personally I don't find it odd. As a programmer, I also understand the whole "can't think straight, therefore I need to call in sick".

I do wonder if your company is using a particular illness metrics system. Had one company that did this - and the tone of the meeting would change if you'd "triggered" the metric, but you wouldn't be in any trouble if the illnesses were genuine and unfixable. From the questions asked, it does make me wonder if they are using this system (as the questions were a part of it!), but I cannot remember the name of it. A string of short, spaced out illnesses triggers the metric a LOT faster than one or two long illnesses.

My personal experience: commuting on public transport has FAR more effect than number of hours worked. Stress can make you more prone to falling ill though, if you're exposed to others who are coughing and sniffling, which is probably their silly point about hours worked (which I'd say are the average!).

Honestly, unless they're threatening disciplinary action, I'd just sit through the meeting and ignore it. My similar meeting was equally frustrating, but had zero consequences. Might be worth finding out if the meetings are metrics-system-driven though.

  • 2
    Bradford factor
    – crdx
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 15:26
  • 2
    It better should be called Burnout factor.
    – leymannx
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 18:45

HR is saying that you take "too many sick days". It means one of 2 things:

  • They say that you take sick days when you shouldn't, i.e. they accuse you of lying about being sick
  • They say you take sick days but they'd rather you didn't, regardless, i.e. they ask you to work when sick

Confront them about which it is, in writing. Either of those is bad enough.

They should never have told you that. You may want to take a lawyer, gather evidence, and file for hostile environment or harassment. (Depending on how things work in UK, this may or may not be useful at all, though)

  • Third option. HR think you are sick more often than is usual and want to be sure that you are being honest. When you are honest everybody wins.
    – Jasen
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 4:42
  • "They should never have told you that." I disagree. I've seen plenty of companies where the maximum expected days of sick leave was pinned so you already knew the threshold. If there is some fixed value, what's the point of not sharing it? Regardless of whether the value makes sense. Now the employee knows what's considered 'expected behaviour'.
    – Mast
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 8:08
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    @Mast if there is a maximum value, the message is different: "you have taken all the allocated sick days this year. Next time you are sick, you'll have to go without pay, or use your vacations" (specific rules may vary). That's a pretty different message, I find.
    – njzk2
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 2:33
  • @njzk2 That's if there's a hard limit, I've never seen one of those and I'm not sure whether those are even legal in The Netherlands. I'm talking about soft limits, where you get into trouble with HR when passing a certain limit and are unofficially no longer considered for promotions, pay raise etc. Basically, if you go over it hard enough or often enough, you're better off starting to look for new work.
    – Mast
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 8:43
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    @Mast in North America, company often offer "personal days" to be used mainly as sick days. Those days are numbered and are part of the contract.
    – njzk2
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 0:57

Just to add a different point of view (unless I've missed it in someone else answer)

First of all forget for a moment the total number of sick days per se. 5 or 50, "too much" depends on the local culture, national culture, work field, and so on. As a former team leader in different Italian companies, for example, I'd never think of 5 days as "too much".

So let's focus on something different: 5 sick days total for 4 event means that you got sick 3 times for just one day and 1 time for 2 days. I'd bet my debts this is what rang the bell.

Scenery: you go to work, everything is fine, next day you call in for a sick day (it can happens, you can get sick overnight), you stay home, and just after a day you go back to work. You just managed to get a debilitating cold -so debilitating that you could not manage to go to work, and not even focusing on code- and then it magically disappears and you're happily back to work.

Can it happens? Yes. Does it make sense? Very little, but human beings are weird machines, so you can never know.

But can it really happen four times in a year that in 24 hours you go from perfectly fine, to mostly dead, to fully health? No, it cannot. And you wrote in your post that you are again ill in this moment, which means that you called 5 times sick in a year, which in itself is a...well, a lot.

Side note: I'm a long time dev and I can write the same amount of bugs both when perfectly fine and when slightly ill; the same applies to all the colleagues I've worked with in my life, but you write that you get an illness that's so bad that you cannot even think straight. Now, it takes the average dev a decent illness to fall back that bad, and I still have to see a decent illness last less than 24 hours.

Anyway, now the company needs an explanation and comes up with those four possibilities:

  1. You call sick for just a day 'cause you are using it to cover some other kind of activity, like to "go to daytime sports games"
  2. You work 'till you nearly drop dead, then call for a day, then go back. This is a sign of someone who's stretching too much his health for the company, so as the company HR I'd be worried for something going wrong. You are not supposed to suicide yourself, if the workload is too much or you are pushing yourself too hard, it would be nice for the HR to know. On top of that this kind of things ruin your health, which means that it makes you more prone to additional sicknesses. So the company "asked, for example, whether there were any underlying problems that they could help me to overcome so that I was ill less often"
  3. You have some -more or less serious- health issue you are ignoring. As an HR, I'm politely telling you "you should call in sick when you are sick, but it's happening too often". What I really meant was "why don't you go see a doctor and sort this thing out"?
  4. You sneeze and call in sick: no fever, no headache, no dizziness, nothing, you just call sick as soon as you feel a little tired. Well, know what? The company "holds its employees to a higher standard"; you colleagues work regularly, they get a little flu ('cause it's winter, it's expected) and go to work anyway; you manage to sneeze four times in a year and call in sick all four times. Maybe it's a little ridiculous and you should straighten your spine?

So, to answer your question

It seems as though my employer wants me to come into work when I'm ill. Am I missing something?

Yes, you are missing that the situation has not much sense and that you are expected to find an explanation and a solution to it: the company gave you all the possible hints and support, now it's up to you.

  • A simple example to disprove your point: When I have a normal cold, sometimes it will interfere with my sleep so much that I only get a few hours of good sleep that night. The next day my head will be so wasted that I will not be able to "think straight" and going to work that day will be pointless. I am speaking from experience here, at this point, there is no way I will produce anything meaningful at work. So I call in sick. The next day I get a good nights sleep, the cold is not that bad anymore, and I go to work. My performance that day is not great, but it is not bad either. Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 6:20

You should go to the doctor if you haven't already.

I am no physician and I have no idea if it is normal for you being sick that much or not. Neither does HR, a formula coined in the 1980s, other people on the internet or —as shown by your question— even you.

There are dozens of factors that could need to be taken into account: your age, race, environment, places you visit, whether you have small children, your habits, diet, amount of sleep… and obviously being you (genetics).

You should go to the doctor and receive whatever instructions are suitable in your case for getting well. But you should also mention the other instances of being ill (if you didn't go there, I would suggest writing down in advance the dates you got ill, how much it took you to recover, etc.) and enquiry if that is "too much" (as implied by company A HR) or not.

It may be that it is not infrequent at all at that zone («Oh, there's a really strong strain this year, some people is coming here ill every other week»), or it may be slightly unusual and warrant further checks. Maybe there is a Vitamin A deficiency in your intake, having less leukocytes than normal, or even be suffering of an autoimmune disease that has not been diagnosed¹

Most likely, if there's anything suspicious, the doctor will focus in having you fully recovered first, and schedule some later analysis if needed.

Obviously, follow their indications and take your medicine to the end of the prescription. If I had to guess, I would think you are actually not recovering 100%, and at a later time where external factors get more slightly worse, you fall ill again. (Getting stressed about lost work or your HR department pressing you won't help either)

It is in your best interest to figure out if there is anything wrong in getting ill "as much as you do", and you should direct your efforts to discover the underlying reason (in case it was indeed too much).

Secondly, going to the doctor now may also (sadly) turn out to be useful later, in case you needed to justify to A1 Software at some point (maybe even months later) that yes, you were ill at that date. You know that you were in bed but a neutral physician stating that will always have more weight.

Regarding the interview with HR, the above steps I mentioned which are simply what it is in your interest to do should help somewhat in either case. If it turns out that this is normal this year, they may probably still dislike you for getting ill², however reveals that you were not, for example, going to sports games.

If the physician did consider it worth studying, you will probably not have any results at the meeting (nor need you tell them what they are after you have them), but you will be able to show that you are going through a path that will (hopefully) lead to you getting sick in the future less often than if you didn't (this can be slow, though).

Also, regarding HR reply about how it "holds its employees to a higher standard", if they bring it up again you may want to question whether there are any measures that A1 Software takes so that its employees can be at such higher standard, which you weren't taking advantage of. Maybe they help his employees getting the flu vaccination at fall? Do they offer some remote work option when reincorporating, so that you can return working again earlier, even if not recovered fully and still (likely) able to infect coworkers?

I am afraid that simply "expecting" that their employees are superhuman and never get sick ranges from completely naive to idiotic. I am sure you too wanted to hold the flu to an higher standard by hitting you less, but it didn't do that!!

Good luck and get well!

¹ Dear reader, please, don't start worrying about suffering uncommon diseases or start taking supplements that may be unneeded, just go to the doctor.

² A problem with HR departments is that, unlike your manager, you may show simply as a number of worked hours, regardless of the actual contribution to the company that you represent.

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    Bad advice. Please do not go to the doctor for a common cold! OP is in the UK, where public money (via the NHS) will be wasted by seeing a doctor for a cold. What you (Angel) suggest may be right for the USA - I don't know and I make no comment on it. But it is wrong for the UK.
    – AndyT
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 9:54
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    @AndyT: He's not going to the doctor for a cold. He's going to the doctor for his employer.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 21:16
  • 3
    @Joshua And rightfully so, and I guess he will get more than one day off from his doctor. In the interview, he will hand over the doctor's note and tell them it was the same as last time, but because of their inquiry last time, he went to see a doctor, which was a waste of time. Maybe they get the subtle message: "I felt the need to stay at home for a day again, but I had to go to the doctor because of your bullshit, and he gave me three days off."
    – Alexander
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 5:40
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    A doctor in the UK is unlikely to see you until you have been off sick for 5+ days. Don't waste their time.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 15:07
  • 3
    Also amusingly, a doctor in the UK will sign you off for 7 days by default unless you request less.... so if HR force you to go to the doctors, enjoy that week off :D Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 15:23

To answer the question in the title: yes, you are missing something. Your employer does not want you to come in when being ill. He wants an employee that is ill less often than you are (for whatever reason or rationale). If that isn't you, it might be someone else.

The "joke" about your absences not matching significant sporting events is not funny. It means that they definitely suspect you of taking sick days for your own goals and have checked some obvious ones. That they did not find a match does not mean that they believe you, only that a very cursory search did not turn up a smoking gun right away.

Pulling such stunts on you makes business sense only when you are perfectly replaceable, namely your output is very much average or less. However, making business sense is not necessarily on the agenda of business majors.

Since you have rather little (at least dependably) influence on how often you may get sick, it might make sense keeping your eyes open for a different job with a more sensible employer.

  • 2
    Is there any question on this site where one of the answers isn't, start looking for another job ?
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 6:11
  • 3
    In many cases, if a person has to ask the question at all, that's a strong indicator of workplace dissatisfaction, a toxic/abusive work environment, insufficient professional or personal recompense, or other significant problems with the current workplace. The obvious answers to all of those things include but are not limited to "get a better job somewhere else". @Mazura
    – user53718
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 9:55
  • This answer isn't start looking for another job. It investigates whether the employer is implicitly making that suggestion. Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 18:24

HR is trying to get the number of sick days taken by employees down.

That's probably a goal set for them by management, and a way their own performance is judged.

Now with things like colds, there is of course a gray area -- there's a point where you can still work at a somewhat lowered level of effectiveness and a point where it's better for everybody that you just lie down and sleep the whole day. Where the exact dividing line is is very hard to say objectively.

And seen from HR's viewpoint, they've been given this task of bringing sick days down, but what tools do they actually have to do that? They can make you feel bad about calling in sick for a cold and put you under some pressure, so that next time maybe you'll keep working, or maybe you'll do a bit more to prevent getting quite as sick (e.g. I sometimes don't get enough sleep in the period before I get a bad cold, I should work on that). That's what's happening. Maybe you crossed some threshold or are now on top of some list so you're getting extra attention.

It's still up to you to decide what you need to do on a given day.

  • I'd hope that any HR department would first attempt to bring sick days down by helping employees to prevent being ill. Is that just me?
    – Gusdor
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 16:19
  • 1
    @Gusdor Reading the question, that's exactly the line HR took the first 3 times. On number 4, their response was essentially "our attempts to help you be sick less often aren't working - are you sure you're keeping up with your side of things?" Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 10:29

I don't think that four colds (or, alternatively, five individual days) off sick in one year is truly exceptional, on average.

I'd understand if I'd taken many more days off but I'm just over the national average.

Hmm, the word "average" means many things. Reading this article it appears the mean is 4.3 days per worker per year. That mean will be heavily weighted by those on long term sick leave, in the order of months. The median and mode are, in my experience, far more likely to be 1 day, although I could easily believe 0 or 2 days. So, what you're missing is that you are (probably) taking off more time sick than your colleagues.

4 days sick in one year is high, and it doesn't surprise me that it's enough to warrant further questions, though I'd expect them to be friendly at first. I'd take this previous meeting as a suggestion that you shouldn't be taking time off for colds.

Most people are able to work relatively normally while suffering from a cold. If you don't feel up to coding, consider other tasks that take less cognitive load.

If you're worried about spreading the cold around the office, consider working from home.

Personally, having worked in both civil engineering and software, I reckon I take about 1 day sick every two years; and I get every cold that's going.

  • 23
    4 days sick may be high for you, but in my experience it's not universally high. I would say 1 day sick every 2 years is very low.
    – tddmonkey
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 16:00
  • 2
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 21:04

I agree with you that 4 colds in a year is more than most, but not exceptional.

Have you considered working from home and taking half-days off when you have a cold, instead of missing the days outright? If HR has flagged you, it's important to be extra conservative about taking sick days. If this isn't possible, you might want a note from a doctor. It's also possible there are office politics going on behind your back, in which case this is likely not a team or company you would want to stay on.

By the way, Google (where I work) actually encourages employees to stay at home when they have a cold and doesn't have an official cap on the number of days one can do this. I register the day off, then try to work from home.


They act like this because they don't trust you, so if a meeting like this is upon you, try to offer ways of evidence to support your absence.

For example is common in my country that the company sends a doctor to your home to "check on you" when you take a sick leave. Or you can go by yourself to a doctor and get a certificate.

  • 15
    @Draken I was tempted to say "just go in when you're sick, and find a reason to visit HR to "share" a few things with them" Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 14:08
  • 4
    @Mafii Same here in Luxembourg, but common colds rarely last longer than 2 days I find. It's rare you would have a common cold for three days or more. If you're still sick on the third day, then by all means go to the doctor. But to just go to get a certificate because you were off for a single day? Don't be ridiculous.
    – Draken
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 14:27
  • 1
    As an alternative to going to the doctor's office for something as minor as a cold (which aside from being told what you probably already know, also prevents you from getting the rest you need to recover), at least in the U.S. we have "minute clinics" and over-the-phone medical consults/nurses' hotlines. I don't know if it's possible to get any documentation from these sources (perhaps a transcript of the call emailed to you) that proves that you sought medical advice and were told to stay home and do self-care/over-the-counter remedies? Even minimal documentation might make HR settle down.
    – QuoteRadar
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 14:37
  • 6
    If your employer is pressuring you to return to work, they are pressuring others and some of those others are "extremely contagious". Do you really want to work there?
    – emory
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 14:45
  • 10
    The OP stated clearly they are in the UK. In the UK, doctors generally will not write notes for employers if the incapacity to work lasts less than seven days. Reference. Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 15:46

Why HR has taken this attitude with you in this meeting is something that we can only speculate on, and several answers have already raised various ideas. It is surprising to me that no one has mentioned this: Taking a single day off once in a while could indeed be due to a minor illness. However, having three or four occasions in a fairly short period of time (and a year to a year and a half could be considered short for this), might make the HR folks wonder if you're job hunting and calling in sick to go on job interviews.

If that's their suspicion, they may be trying to find out if it is correct. They may fear that they need to keep an extra close watch on your activities (in case you're one of those notorious disgruntled workers who might try to sabotage the company). Also they may be trying to determine if they need to prepare to fill your position soon ... or if they think it would be better to let you go before you leave.

I'm not saying any of the above is what is happening (or is appropriate if it is what they are thinking), I'm just pointing out the possibility.


What you are missing is that calling in sick on 4 different occasions is a bit on the high side. Having the flu for a week is something very different then being sick 4 times, 5 days in total.

It fits more in a pattern of someone who once in a while can't handle their alcohol intake and takes a sick-day for sobering up.

Think about stuff like that, that's why HR is all over you.

If you're sick so often, maybe you do want to go to the doctor because getting a cold 5 times in a year is abnormal.

  • 3
    5 colds in a year is well within normal variation. Wasting a doctor's time on a cold helps nobody.
    – user53718
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 9:52
  • This is offensive. You don't know the person's medical history. Some people are more susceptible to respiratory illness than others. It is not unusual for people with compromised immune systems or damaged lungs to have multiple colds in one year.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 16:13
  • @HLGEM and there's the elephant in the room. Maybe the OP does have a respiratory illness which makes this not extraordinary. That would totally change the question. If the OP however does not have any illness which warrants being sick on 5 different occasions withing a year, that's out of the ordinary.
    – Pieter B
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 21:19
  • @HLGEM you may not like the answer but it's how the real world is. I may not even like that things go that way but they do, not all answers should express an utopia we would love to live in one day, some answers just come from reality and this is how a lot of employers treat sickness. So it's a valid answers.
    – Pieter B
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 22:02
  • +1: The answer might be worded a bit more kindly, but in my experience, it's getting to the reality of at least some HR departments. Being told to take a week off to recover from an illness is probably not going to raise any suspicion; however, 4 occasions of 1 or 2 days over a year or so does seem above average to me. What really got the +1 was the mention of alcohol - at one time I worked for a company where the head of the personnel department told me the company specifically looked for this sort of behavior (especially on Mondays) to try to find people who drank too much.
    – GreenMatt
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 18:03

A lot of people seem to have over-analysed this and not even referred to the title.

In terms of it seems as though - well yes clearly they do want you to come in, because they are paying you whilst you are off sick. The way it works in most software companies is that there is a daily value associated with each employee (which depends on level, experience, maybe even the project they're working on). This value - when passed through a forumla - will give the company a rough idea of how much profit they could be making from your work if you were on any given project.

Clearly they don't want to lose money so the answer about "it seems as though" is yes, it very much is the case they want you in.

Now, can they actually make you come in if you're off sick? Well, the law (as per your link) states that they must have a sickness policy.

If you're sick - put the ball back in their court - ask if they want you to come in or not. If they say no then make a record of that, and likewise if they say yes then come in and also make a record of it. If they expect you in and you're unproductive (or infect other employees causing them further losses) it was their choice to ask you to come in.

I've been in this situation before. It's disgusting how companies think they have this power over employees and try to scare them. If you were off long term sick (e.g. over a week) then a doctors note would be appropriate. Furthermore, if they level any accusations at you (e.g. attending sports events) ask them for hard evidence.

Basically, they haven't got a leg to stand on with this.

  • 3
    "A lot of people seem to have over-analysed this and not even referred to the title." You mean the title with the question "Have I missed anything?"? Which is what most answers have been answering. Whereas you seem to have answered a question of your own imagination, along the lines of "Does my employer want me to come in to work when I'm ill?".
    – AndyT
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 17:11
  • 1
    The title is not the question, and doesn't actually form a relevant part of it. Titles are only ever a reference for finding the actual question and giving some clue as to content.
    – user53718
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 23:35

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