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Let's say hypothetical office employee Alice has come down with the common cold. She feels terrible, but not so terrible that she can't work. Her productivity might be half of what it usually is, but half is not zero. Should she go to work after all? Assume an office work environment - Alice isn't a professional pianist, chef, etc.

I've had people give me contradictory advice on this. The main arguments against going to work are:

  • You're contagious. You could infect others. You could not only infect your co-workers, you could infect everyone else you come into contact with, e.g. other people on the bus.
  • You stay sick longer. Because you're not resting, you take longer to recover.
  • You are ill. You can't concentrate as well. Your work is more likely to be shoddy.
  • Employers/coworkers prefer it and disdain you for not showing social responsibility.

The main arguments for going to work are:

  • Employers/coworkers prefer it and admire your dedication.
  • One is no longer that contagious when symptoms are visible (the most contagious period is before symptoms are visible). Plus, the common cold is not that contagious. The person who told me this gave as examples chicken pox and conjunctivitis - with these illnesses, one should avoid going to work.
  • You feel worse by taking sick leave, as though you're abandoning your colleagues. Your work piles up.
  • Even if you take sick leave, you'll probably only get one day of sick leave. You'd also have to visit a doctor, so it's not like you can avoid other people. One day is not enough to fully recover, so you end up going to work sick anyway.

I suspect whether employers/coworkers prefer if Alice comes to work anyway depends on the individual, but still: are there any possible general statements?

Related, but somewhat different: How soon should you return to work after illness?

  • My boss kicks out of the building whoever that comes ill (sneezing, coughing.. etc). He believes that getting rid (temporary) of a sick employee, is better than getting the whole team infected. – Sandra K Jan 10 at 2:11
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    An employee once came in with cold/flu, complained of feeling crap all day and was then off for the next 5-6days with flu. So was everyone else in our office (small company mind) for about a week. I feel this happens a lot - its hard to know when its just a little cold and when its worse but whoever has it should be the judge imo. People make a lot of mistakes when ill regardless. – adamcooney Jan 10 at 9:46
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    Employers/coworkers prefer it and admire your dedication This is absolutely idiotic and demoralizing. If I suspect someone is sick, I want him to go home because I want to do the same when I get sick. If I suspect someone is contagious, I don't appreciate putting me under risk. So, stupid employers might like it, but we needn't worry about those. – rath Jan 10 at 12:34
  • Employers/coworkers prefer it and admire your dedication. <— I guarantee that this is not true – Gaius Jan 10 at 20:20
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This really depends on your team, your manager, and your company's culture. In previous companies, I've gotten a lot of flak for calling in sick. Managers would try to pressure me to come in anyway, and sometimes co-workers would give me grief. At my current company, everyone from team members to the CEO are very encouraging of people taking PTO or Work From Home time, even if we've already gone over our WFH limit. I've had co-workers literally take work away from me as they shooed me home to rest.

So it comes down to your particular environment. You really have to know the culture of your company, the mindset of your team and manager, and make your decision based on that.

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Your question covers most of the pros and cons, but here are the general rules I'd give:

If you're able to work remotely:

  • By all means feel free to work while sick. The concern about passing germs isn't relevant if you're at home. Your productivity might not be as good as normal, but let's face it: You're at home. You're near a couch (hopefully) and you can easily take long breaks or simply stop for the day as soon as you start feeling worse.
  • The important thing is to be self-aware enough and realistic about how much you will or will not be able to produce respectable, quality work, even if you're not up to your normal standard.

If you can't work remotely, here are general guidelines to follow:

  • DO come to work if: You have critical meetings or a really high-pressure deadline that day AND you aren't definitely contagious (ie. strep throat in the first 24 hours, chicken pox, etc).
  • Unless it's extenuating circumstances, DO NOT come to work if you have any reason to think that you might get others sick. (ie. contagious, high fever, uncontrollable cough, etc)

If you come in to the office:

  • If someone comes over to talk to you or meet with you, DO keep a bit of extra distance and tell them that you're a drop under the weather. They might secretly wish you had stayed home, but they will also be glad you gave them fair notice not to get too close.
  • DO go home if you start feeling unproductive or extremely lousy. If the company isn't benefiting from having you in the office, don't waste your time and potentially expose others.
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While there are many employers who prefer employees to come in to work in situations like this it's usually a false economy. The fear from some employers is that people take advantage and will call in sick when they aren't - but firstly you'll never completely eliminate this and secondly this is a management and disciplinary issue, pressuring people to come in when they are sick is a blunt instrument that harms the genuine people far more than it does the flakes.

While the common cold is not generally a serious illness, and as you say there are other things that are far more contagious in general terms modern office environments are particularly well suited to encouraging it's transmission. In order to not lose the half day's worth of productivity from Alice when she has a cold you often end up losing several person days worth from others who come down with it and also come in ill and so on.

One day is not enough to fully recover, so you end up going to work sick anyway.

Often true - but most will recover much faster with that one solid day rather than it dragging on because they are coming in and how contagious the person is drops off significantly as they recover so even just taking the one "worst" day off will significantly benefit them and the company.

Speaking as an employer (not a huge sample I admit!)..

There's such a thing as "not being a d##k" to your employees - if one of my staff is ill I don't push them to work before they feel better because of empathy (Like pretty much every human being who's ever lived I get sick too - and it's not fun). Sure it has benefits to me in terms of the fact that it engenders good employer-employee relations which bolsters productivity and can improve retention of good workers but primarily it's the "not being a d##k" thing.

Employers/coworkers prefer it and admire your dedication.

I don't think of that as dedication.. if an employee wants to show dedication in a sickness scenario they can do that by working hard to catch up when they have recovered.

You feel worse by taking sick leave, as though you're abandoning your colleagues. Your work piles up.

This is a thing.. but it's faulty thinking IMO. And you can address any real concerns by passing messages to people to cover off anything time sensitive.

The ideal situation in a case like Alice's where she feels well enough to do some work is to offer the option to work from home. Stops further transmission of the virus and allows the employee to address anything urgent while minimizing the impact upon their recovery.

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The main argument for coming to work, in every place I've worked for a couple of decades (midwestern US), is that we haven't had sick leave. We've had Personal Time Off, which we can spend when we're sick, or when we're healthy and can actually enjoy it. Therefore, if I don't come into the office because I'm sick, I can't take as much vacation time as I otherwise could have.

The company is sending me a very clear message that I should come in if I can drag myself in, and that I shouldn't worry about infecting everyone else. If I could stay home sick without losing any vacation time, I'd feel much better about staying home. If the company wants me to stay away so I don't infect anyone else, they can make it more practical for me to do so.

And, yes, this is a selfish viewpoint, but it's based on company policy. People do what they are rewarded for doing, and avoid doing what they're penalized for doing. If the company higher-ups create a policy that penalizes doing the right thing, guess what?

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In your hypothetical example you mention that if Alice is going into work she is 1/2 as productive as usually.

Suppose Alice goes into work and spends the day (effective 0.5 man hours). She infects either directly or indirectly most of the office. How many man days are lost? More that the couple for Alice to recover by taking a couple of days off.

Also does the office like listening to a person coughing, sneezing and blowing their nose?

Also you should take into account that some people have a harder time to recover from illnesses. Is it fair to infect people that are, say, asthmatic?

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I think this question is only answerable from personal experience, so I will.

Personally, I don't want my colleagues working while sick. Firstly, I don't like being sick and I'd prefer not being around people who are sick who might make me sick. If you are sick and you work closely with me, I'd prefer if you don't work closely with me until you're better. Secondly, if you're sick, you are less productive and you aren't thinking as clearly (e.g. due to not enough sleep, headache, etc). As the saying goes, "do it right, or do it twice". I'd rather just wait for you to do it right than to do it twice. In my opinion, I would prefer if you're sick to just stay home, and to work from home as much as you think you can while putting in 100% effort (as much as if you were not sick, not as much as you can while sick).

As for employers, most employers I've worked for (in Canada at least where I am) allow work from home or sick leave. The companies I've worked for tend to allow near-unlimited work from home, within reason (e.g. "I will work from home for a month" is not acceptable, "I will work from home for 3 days because I have a cold" is). I've never had a problem asking to work from home due to illness. That said, I've also worked in Japan, where you have to take PTO if you are not at work, for any reason. This means that people often come to work while sick, and illness travels around the office fairly easily. So it depends a lot on locale and the cultural norms where you are.

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