I have a co-worker at work today who looks "like death" or fairly close to it, with the flu. She's not working in my direct vicinity, but clearly this situation is not ideal for her nor the people who work here.

The reason she is here today is "Because no one else can do my job." - I, too, have a job that would be difficult to cope without for an extended period of being contagious from the flu or something similar in the tight-deadline, small-town-newspaper industry that we work in. I imagine that this is a common problem.

I wonder how this situation can be handled professionally by:

  • the sick co-worker
  • our manager
  • myself and other employees in the vicinity
  • 18
    "The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men." Feb 4, 2015 at 19:20

2 Answers 2


This should NOT be a common problem, but too often people feel, or want to feel indispensable, and/or the sick time policy is not helpful.

A sick co-worker needs to:

  • Make sure that other people can do the indispensable part of her job. Through some form of documentation, no-one should be indispensable. (The classic: If I got hit by a bus, would the company/my important stuff be OK?).

  • Take advantage of any remote working opportunities, and make sure they are set up.

  • If really indispensable, isolate herself in office, bring lunch, don't talk to people face to face, use lots of hand washing/sanitizer

A manager needs to:

  • actively encourage sick people to stay home, including not punishing/ridiculing employees for using their sick time.
  • Make sure the team has set up emergency plans if key employees are out (including, but not limited to, cases of sickness).
  • Ensure the team has protocols for how to work remotely, if possible.


  • Set a good example and stay home when sick
  • actively thank people who DO keep their germs to themselves
  • encourage you manager to do the above items.
  • EDIT ADD: politely refuse face-to-face meetings with sick people, asking to conduct over email/IMs/other tools your company may use.
  • wash hands often.

BONUS: HR/company/CEO

  • Allow for work from home, if possible
  • give sick time

Updating on the background of comments. It is true that not only is the sick leave policy important, it is important how it is carried out. I have worked in places where people have been ridiculed for using the sick leave policy, but management & other co-workers stepped in. The policy is not enough, there needs to be a culture of it being OK to take time to get better if you are sick. In this scenario, I find the manager and his/her implementation of the sick leave policy crucial (this is assuming the company has a useful sick leave policy).

  • 5
    Absolutely nailed it. This lady may be indispensible and have a mild enough case that she can work. The colleagues she will pass it to, however, may not be so lucky. As indispensable as she is, the company can't function with 90% of it's workforce out for 2 weeks. More importantly, she's being hugely irresponsible - she risks passing it to vulnerable colleagues, or the vulnerable family of colleagues, who would otherwise not be in contact with her. In short, she needs to go home.
    – Jon Story
    Feb 4, 2015 at 14:50
  • 6
    @JonStory I wouldn't be so quick to blame her without knowing the sick leave policy, both the on paper and the actual one. I've known work places that give good sick leave on paper but which will unofficially target you for replacement if you use a single day. Often I've found it is management who is being irresponsible. Feb 4, 2015 at 15:08

I have found in my experience that people who consider themselves that 'indispensable' to the point where they regularly come in sick tend to be the easiest to replace nod are simply trying to:

  1. Show management how hard they work

  2. Don't want to let anybody else into "what they do" because in their own mind they are that irreplaceable that they don't want management to see that someone else is capable of performing their work

  3. Are scared to death of having someone else either be capable of their work or at least appearing to be to management

The massive downside to having a sick person in the office ( apart from the obvious that they are being paid to keep a chair warm, while they work at a reduced rate ) but they also can make others sick.

And if a institution is so small/understaffed that nobody else can pick up or be temporarily hired to pick up the slack for a few months then that should be a massive red flag.

( for example a small software company , the only person who is actually irreplaceable is the person who does the payroll , on the day that the payroll is due, but either a director or outside accounting firm should be able to do that in the event of an emergency )

  • The payroll thing is actually a nice example: If it's so important for the payroll to be ready on a certain day, it should probably be prepared a few days in advance. Then there is time to find a workaround if something gets in the way, such as a sudden illness.
    – sleske
    Feb 5, 2015 at 15:29

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