Should I be Working While Sick?

working while sickShould I be working while sick?  The answer ideally is no.  If I am sick, I should go home and rest.  Come back when I feel better.  The real world however is not that simple, especially when we are talking about everyday illnesses, such as a cold or a flu.

Every time I feel unwell, I debate whether to take time off or how to work while sick.  This is because in the modern world of Paid Time Off and tight deadlines for busy professionals, we have to figure out the tradeoffs between suddenly taking time off vs the impact of it on our work.  Here are five key considerations for many of us.

  1. Can I truly let go of the work and rest if I take sick days. Whether I recover quickly  depends on whether I can truly rest.  Depending on my work situation, I may stress more if I tried to not work abruptly and rest.
  2. Taking sick days will eat into my vacation days.   Most companies no longer give us sick days separate from our vacation days.  Instead we get Paid Time Off (PTO).  Therefore, taking 3 days off to recover from a cold, just means 3 less days of vacation that year.   Is it worth it?
  3. Will resting even help me recover?  I may choose to take some time off, but it may not help me recover faster, as some colds will just need to take its course.  That is sort of why my husband would argue, a cold without a fever is just discomfort, not sickness.   Just let it take its course.  I cannot rush it anyway.
  4. Will the work be worse if I went away suddenly?  This is a serious consideration. Ever go on vacation and come back to twice amount of work and stress?  Well, this would be similar or worse since the time off is unplanned.
  5. How will this affect my reputation?  If I am presenting at an important leadership meeting, can I just say no at the last minute if I am sick?  should I?  If there is a key deadline coming up, do I have the luxury to take any time off to rest or should I just rest after the deadline is met?

I was sick for about a week just now, which prompted me to write this article.   I noticed the internal conflict I had and wondered how many others also struggles with this question – Should I be working while sick?

When the work is light, the answer is simple – I work from home and take it easy until I am better.  I don’t need to take time off as the work is mellow enough to let me rest here and there. When the work is hectic, this is where the decision of whether to work and how to work while sick matters. This is also where soft skills like self awareness, self confidence, communication, and delegation can guide me to the right approach every time.

  • Self Awareness – Know thyself – I know I would have a hard time resting if I all of a sudden took time off for a cold.   I would feel guilty especially if I didn’t have a fever.  I would end up worrying more about the work that I left behind.  How would I catch up?   What’s important here is
    • Know my health – can I still function?  Will working make me much worse?
    • Know the way I stress – How will what I decide affect my stress level?
    • Know my mind – Can I let it go and truly rest?
  • Self confidence and delegation – Prioritize – Believe in what you can and cannot do while sick and set boundaries.  I have been working 10-12 hour days lately.  My current role is a high profile lead in a “game changer” initiative for the company.   All eyes are on us to deliver.  With that said, however no one micromanages my day.  I have full control.  This time I decided to work full time while sick, but made some adjustments to also help me recover
    • I prioritized meetings I must attend and push out others that are less urgent
    • I delegated leadership of meetings to others.  I don’t always need to lead.  I assessed who is the next best person to do it and asked them for help.  Most people are happy to help or even welcome the opportunity
    • I pushed out all non-essential work so I worked closer to an 8 hour day and also made a point to sleep 9-10 hours a night
    • I worked from home certain days, stayed in my pajamas for phone meetings, and took power naps when I had time in between meetings.
  • Communication – While I don’t make a big deal when I am sick, I do communicate to key folks to manage expectations and get help from others.  For example
    • When I lost my voice two weeks ago, I told folks, I will write my comments on the online meeting instead and only speak up when I have to.
    • I attended meetings remotely instead of in person to save others from my germs and save myself some energy.

It took me 8 days to fully recover from my cold.   Would I have gotten better sooner if I took a day or two of PTO?  That’s always the $64 million question.  You just never know.  In my case, I doubt it. In either case, I knew I made the right decision to keep working while sick as my stress level was steady.  I was able to sleep well as I didn’t over-worry about work.   To me, that was key to my short term productivity while sick and my long term health.

Your comments: Do you continue working while sick?  How to do deal with this?  I look forward to your comments.

Like this article, then help me share it on Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc.

New to my site? Start here – Soft Skills – How to Succeed Like an Executive

Best wishes to your healthy and your career success.  I am always in your corner


8 thoughts on “Should I be Working While Sick?”

  1. To be or NOT to be that is the question.
    To work or NOT to work while sick is debatable either way, however, I would like to share with you another point of view from a different angle that is worth reading in this age of quick fixes (this was being circulated around):

    “It’s been 18 years since I joined Volvo, a Swedish company. Working for them has proven to be an interesting experience. Any project here takes 2 years to be finalized, even if the idea is simple and brilliant. It’s a rule.”
    Globalized processes have caused in us (all over the world) a general sense of searching for immediate results. Therefore, we have come to possess a need to see immediate results. This contrasts greatly with the slow movements of the Swedish. They, on the other hand, debate, debate, debate, hold x quantity of meetings and work with a slowdown scheme. At the end, this always yields better results.
    1. Sweden has 2 million inhabitants..
    2. Stockholm has 500,000 people.
    3. Volvo, Escania, Ericsson, Electrolux, are some of its renowned companies. Volvo even supplies NASA.
    The first time I was in Sweden , one of my colleagues picked me up at the hotel every morning. It was September,bit cold and snowy. We would arrive early at the company and he would park far away from the entrance (2000 employees drive their car to work). The first day, I didn’t say anything, neither the second or third days. One morning I asked him, “Do you have a fixed parking space? I’ve noticed we park far from the entrance even when there are no other cars in the lot.” To which he replied, “Since we’re here early we’ll have time to walk, don’t you think that whoever gets in late will need a place closer to the door?” Imagine my face.
    Nowadays, there’s a movement in Europe named Slow Food. This movement establishes that people should eat and drink slowly, with enough time to taste their food, spend time with the family, friends, without rushing. Slow Food is against its counterpart, Fast Food and what it stands for as a lifestyle. Slow Food is the basis for a bigger movement called Slow Europe, as mentioned by Business Week.
    Basically, the movement questions the sense of “hurry” and “craziness” generated by globalization, fuelled by the desire of “having in quantity” (life status) versus “having with quality”, “life quality” or the “quality of being”.
    French people, even though they work 35 hours per week, are more productive than Americans or British. Germans have established 28.8 hour workweeks and have seen their productivity driven up by 20%. This slow attitude has come to the notice of USA , the pupils of the fast and “do it now” brigade.
    This no-rush attitude doesn’t represent doing less or having a lower productivity. It means working and doing things with greater quality, productivity, perfection, with attention to detail and less stress.
    It means re-establishing family values, friends, free and leisure time. Taking the “now”, present and concrete, versus the “global”, undefined and anonymous. It means taking humans’ essential values, the simplicity of living. It stands for a less coercive work environment, more happy, lighter and more productive work place where humans enjoy doing what they know best how to do.
    It’s time to stop and think on how companies need to develop serious quality with no-rush that will increase productivity and the quality of products and services, without losing the essence.

    In the movie, ‘Scent of a Woman’, there’s a scene where Al Pacino asks a girl to dance and she replies, “I can’t, my boyfriend will be here any minute now”. To which Al Pacino responds, “A life is lived in an instant”. Then they dance the tango!
    Many of us live our lives running behind time, but we only reach it when we die of a heart attack or in a car accident rushing to be on time. Others are so anxious to live for the future that they forget to live the present, which is the only time that truly exists.
    We all have equal time throughout the world. No one has more or less. The difference lies in how each one of us does with our time. We need to live each moment. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.

    1. Hi Edward, thanks for sharing this story. I do agree. We are a very rushed culture. Sometimes patience and slowing things down is more productive. I wrote an article on this as well – Patience – Use it to Speed up Results.

      Given your story Edward, what does this mean for you in relationship to this question – should I be working while sick? Does this mean your answer is no always. How do you define sick? How do you handle it when you are sick and at work? Do you work in the US? I would love to hear more about what you learned from this story you shared. thanks

  2. I had an infected tooth, initially I was unaware what I was sick with, only that in general I felt rather unwell and my face hurt. I went to the doctor who diagnosis was shingles in the ear!! I was given anti virus tablets and panedeine , I continued working from home as I had forecasts to update and board papers, the pain in my face increased and to cope with that pain I had panadeine. The CEO emailed me on Saturday requesting the updated forecasts for the Board Papers. I responded apologising for the delay, that I was experiencing excruciating pain, and had been diagnosised with shingles on the previous Thursday. On the Sunday the pain localised to my mouth I determined I had a dental issue, and found the only emergency dentist on call on a Sunday in my town who did emergency surgery on a cracked and infected tooth. the relief was immediate, and I returned home, reviewed the updated forecasts and forwarded them for inclusion in the board papers. I thought I was okay, no longer sick and my judgement was sound. I was wrong, the forecasts were included in the board pack though, one month later I prepared a board paper noting multiple variances as a result of human error in the calculations. It was irrelevant that I had reviewed them a day after informing the CEO that I was experiencing excruciating pain and unable to complete them. They were wrong and it reflected badly on myself and my credibility. I had thought they were ok, but I was still unwell and was unable to judge the level of my illness because I was unwell.

    1. Jane, thanks for sharing your story. It’s a good lesson for us all. Sometimes trying to work while sick has more detrimental effects than we realize. In this case you were probably blinded by your pain to really focus and make sure the report was accurate. I wonder looking back, would you have had the option to call in sick and recover before delivering this forecast? Or would the CEO also faulted you if you didn’t deliver on time. This is usually why this decision is complex. At the end of the day, we have to take responsibility for our decision. What I am learning as I debate this every time is whatever we decide we have to take responsibility for the outcome. That includes learning how to judge our ability to deliver in the job. Be confident to ask for what we need to succeed in our jobs. It’s the hardest for us over achievers to give ourselves permissions to rest but we must if we can’t function as well at work. If a company isn’t supportive of these kind of hard decision you make then it also tells you something about whether they care for their employees.

  3. I’ve also had this dilemma. My company provides separate sick days versus vacation days but I’ve banked many days, 124 to be exact. I rarely take them because of the guilt I feel. Questions I ask myself; Am I sick enough to take the day off? What kind of example do I set for my team? Do I have any meetings today that I shouldn’t miss?

    I was raised by a single mom who sent us to school sick because she had to work. What she would tell us is to try to get through part of the day and to give her a call if we needed to go home. I’ve applied this method to my adult life and also imposed it on my children when they were in school and too young to stay home on their own. I also previously held a position that if I didn’t go into work I didn’t get paid and someone else who may have had the day off would have to cover for me. Guilt…

    I’m working towards changing this and taking stock of how I feel and if being home and resting will do some good. Nice article and certainly something that I think about often.

    1. Christine, thanks for commenting. You hit the nail on the head. Guilt we put on ourselves. It’s not healthy actually as guilt tends to come from insecurity. We as over achievers seem to have loads of it for no good reason. I wrote this post also to recognize that in me. I find that once we analyze it and label it with our logical mind, We are more empowered to find balance for our health and our work.

      Also what Jane shared in her comment also serves as a good lesson. We will hit a certain point where continue to work while sick will be bad for our health as well as our work reputation. Then it’s necessary to take a stand and rest. Be bold to ask for a break as we know we need it to be healthy and productive again. Glad this post also helped you. 🙂

  4. Good Post! That is a challenge that I face constantly. I work in education and students are always bringing me their germs! I work hard, and I hate missing days of work. The other day a customer told me to go home because she was afraid of germs. I completely understood her side, but if I am not there working, then I don’t get paid. Thanks for the tips, they will definitely help the next time I am in a similar situation.

Leave a Reply