6 Reasons We Still Work When We’re Sick — and How COVID-19 Has Proven We Shouldn't Be Expected To

woman blowing her nose at her desk

Adobe Stock / AntonioDiaz

Lorelei Yang
Lorelei Yang718
Wonky consultant with a passion for words
  • One of the most common reasons that people still go to work sick is that they simply can't afford not to do so.
  • Some workers simply don't have sick days they can use to stay home from work, or their employer may be pressuring them not to take one.
  • If you're contagious or incapable of carrying out your day-to-day responsibilities, you should absolutely stay home from work.

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In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more workers are growing increasingly ill. In many cases, employees who aren't feeling 100% are still working from home or putting themselves at the frontlines of the virus, instead of taking the time they need to recuperate. 

Why do people work when they’re sick?

There are numerous reasons that explain why someone might work when they're sick. Below are six of the common explanations.

1. They can't afford not to work.

Sadly, one of the most common reasons that sick people keep going to work is that they simply can't afford not to do so. This is especially true for low-income, hourly or part-time workers. In such workers' cases, they won't be paid if they don't show up. For these workers — many of whom are already on the brink economically — a day or two off from work can mean the difference between making or not making rent. 

2. They're afraid they'll lose their jobs.

Some workers may also fear losing their jobs if they don't show up at work. This is most likely to be true for the most tenuously employed workers in the economy, such as low-income, hourly and shift workers. For some of these workers, not making a shift — even because of illness — can lead to the loss of their jobs. This fear isn't unique to those in precarious employment situations, either. Even white-collar workers and those in office environments may fear taking time off work because they're worried they'll be viewed as unreliable and, therefore, not necessary at work.

3. They have too much going on at work and can't afford to take the time off.

In some cases, people won't take a sick day because they have too much going on at work. Workers in the "greedy" industries, such as law and banking, are most likely to cite this as a reason for going in to work while feeling unwell. However, that isn't to say that workers in other industries are immune to this feeling. According to a 2014 study by the National Science Foundation (NSF), four out of 10 American workers cited deadlines, having too much work to make up upon their return or similar sentiments as their reason for going to work sick.

4. They've run out of sick days (or didn't have them to begin with).

About one-quarter (one in four) American workers simply don't have sick days they can use to stay home from work. This means that over 35 million workers literally don't have the ability to call out sick from work, according to Miami Times Online. Even workers with sick days may still run out of these days, especially if they're caretakers for young children, elderly family members or sick partners. Unfortunately, most employers in most states have no legal obligation to provide sick days.

5. They don't want to use a sick day.

In some cases, choosing not to take a sick day is a simple case of stubbornness and wanting to preserve sick days. Some workers choose not to use sick days because they would rather be at work. A 2019 Accountemps survey revealed that 40% of respondents didn't call out from work sick due to simply not wanting to use their sick days.

6. Their employer is pressuring them not to take a sick day.

Sometimes, employers pressure their employees not to take time off. Michael Steinitz, senior executive director of Robert Half's Accountemps division, says in a media release, "Whether it's due to large workloads, pressure from the boss or because they can't afford to take time off, it's all too common for employees to come to the office feeling sick when they really should be resting." In particular, managers may implicitly pressure their employees to come into work sick because they themselves come in when they're ill.
It's important to note that workers who find themselves under pressure from their employers to go into work while ill have some recourse. To start with, if they feel comfortable doing so, they can push back against their managers. They should also document their illness; in some cases, this may require going to a doctor to build a medical record documenting their illness. In less severe cases, workers should simply document their symptoms on their own.

How sick should you be to stay home from work?

While going in to work if you're feeling unwell is a personal decision, there are some hard guidelines that should be followed. If you're unwell enough to be incapable of carrying out your day-to-day responsibilities, you should absolutely stay home from work (there would, after all, be no point in being at work if you can't, well, work). Additionally, if you're contagious, it's probably better to stay home rather than risk getting your coworkers sick, as well.
Depending on your industry, there may also be a slightly lower bar for staying home sick. For example, those in the food service industry who handle customers' food may want to stay home sick whenever possible, for patrons' safety. However, it's worth mentioning that while this may be the ideal course of action, it may not be feasible due to financial constraints.

5 drawbacks of going to work sick.

There are many drawbacks associated with going to work sick:
  1. It could prolong your illness by making it harder for you to get the rest that your body needs to recuperate. In some cases, you may even worsen your illness by wearing your body down at the exact time that it needs extra rest.
  2. You could get coworkers ill, making your entire team less productive as a result.
  3. If you're a manager, you may — deliberately or not — set the expectation that those who report to you must also come into work while sick, regardless of whether they actually want to or feel comfortable doing so.
  4. Your coworkers may not appreciate you coming in and potentially causing them to fall ill.
  5. You could make fellow commuters ill.
Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.