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Why being at work when you are sick is plain dumb

We’ve all been there. Whether because of a looming deadline, large workloads or because we fear how calling in sick will be perceived by management, we’ve all had days where we are at work, but are actually not really there at all. And though absenteeism, which refers to the practice of staying away from work for no good reason, can be costly for businesses, presenteeism is believed to be an even bigger problem.

If you are sick – be sick!

Who knew there was a term for it?!  Workplace presenteeism is a real problem for organisations.  The opposite of employees calling in sick when they are actually healthy (absenteeism) – presenteeism is when your workmate turns up for work, even though they are sick or unwell (and normally then proceeds to infect everyone else).

In days now passing us by (thankfully), it was a measure of your commitment to the job if you turned up riddled with a terrible cold.  Meeting deadlines despite your flu actually increased your chances of recognition and putting aside your fever in favour of clearing workloads was met with managerial nods.

But times are changing.  Across the workplace spectrum – presenteeism is increasingly being discouraged because the fact is that it is not productive, not impressive and not good for your health, or that of your workmates.

So, if you are in a workplace where people are still turning up and sharing their germs – what can you do?


Often, what is needed is a cultural change team wide.  At your meetings, talk about the importance of not coming to work sick, encourage your team to step up if someone is absent due to sickness and focus on bringing your best selves to work.  Celebrate success that occurs when someone steps in to help a sick workmate. Communication is key. If someone is off sick, discuss with the wider team how work is reallocated so that everyone is aware – this encourages people to chip in and help, and actually builds team spirit.


Most good employees don’t want to let their teammates down by calling in sick, instead they turn up for work and end up infecting everyone (how thoughtful!).  If you see one of your work mates is unwell – encourage them to go home and offer to help them with their workload. 


Often leaders are the worst example of presenteeism – to change what is sometimes an unhealthy habit is hard.  If you are a leader – force yourself to take leave if you are sick – leading through action is crucial and far more powerful than talking about it but not doing it yourself.  Empower those around you to encourage you to take sick leave also.


The two biggest reasons that people turn up sick for work is not wanting to let people down and that they can’t work effectively at home due to access and technology issues.  So, make sure you’ve set them up to work flexibility (laptops, mobiles and on-line communications) – to ensure that if they are up to it, they can still contribute while not sharing their germs at work.  Discuss with HR your different roles and how from a company perspective you can encourage working from home effectively as a solution for people who might just have a cold – so they are able to work, but just don’t want to bring their germs to work.


Mostly – people want to do a good job and feel good about the contribution they make.  Being sick and feeling the stress of an increased workload is not good for anyone – so front foot it and discuss what you’ve got on your plate and how you think it can be managed.  Most managers just want to know that the urgent and important things are covered by someone and that you’ve got it sorted.

Being “that” person who infected the office with a rotten cold is never cool – so next time you get the sniffles – make sure you use it as an opportunity to create a different approach to sick leave and being sick.

About the author

Angela Cameron - CA, CPA

Executive Director

A chartered accountant by qualification, she is a recruitment leader by nature.

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