Feature Archive

Illness and Work
(Too Sick to Work)

By Susan Seliger
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Introduction

What's a good enough reason to call in sick? If you wake up feeling sneezy, sleepy, dopey and grumpy, as if you've turned into nearly all of Snow White's dwarves overnight, you might be wondering whether you should tough it out or just stay home. Here's some advice on how to tell when your symptoms warrant staying at home - or when you have to roll out of bed and get to work.

#1 Good reason to call in sick: You're a danger to others

"You have to ask yourself the key question: Are you a danger to yourself or to others?" says Michael Bagner, MD, attending physician at St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital and Medical Director of Roosevelt Hospital Doctors Offices in New York.

If, for example, you have an earache that affects your balance or concentration, you can't do much harm sitting at your computer.

"But for someone who drives a bus or is a pilot, that earache could be very dangerous, for everybody," Bagner explains. Also, if you are taking medication that can make you so groggy as to make it dangerous to perform your routine duties, you should do everyone a favor and stay home.

#2 Good reason to call in sick: You're contagious

Contagion is another critical deciding factor - but not always an easy one to determine.

"A lot of diseases are contagious before you realize you're sick," Bagner tells WebMD. "Once you know you're sick, you may not be contagious any more, and may as well go to work."

But it pays to err on the side of staying home "if you work in close quarters with your co-workers - or you work with elderly or small children or people with cancer or chronic conditions -those are the most vulnerable people in our society," says Bagner. "A minor nuisance of an illness to you could be fatal to them." (Check out the symptoms below to help you determine contagiousness.)

#3 Good reason to call in sick: You won't be productive

The third issue to consider is how productive you will really be. Ask yourself whether showing up just to prove you are a team player could make things worse.

"Sometimes people come back too soon and they get even sicker and wind up staying out longer," says Paula H. Harvey, a human resources consultant with K & P Consulting and Adjunct Professor at Winthrop University as Rock Hill, SC.

It's no wonder many people make decisions based on the health of their bank accounts rather than that of their bodies. About one-third of companies offer no sick leave pay at all, according to a 2006 study by the Society for Human Resource Management.

"If you have less than a year's tenure in some companies they may terminate you if you have been out of work for three days - that's common in manufacturing," Harvey says. So if you stay home and snooze, you lose.

Symptoms to Help You Decide - Should You Call in Sick?

Your symptoms can provide the clearest clues as to whether you may be dangerous, contagious or unproductive enough to stay at home. Here's how to decode the most common symptoms as you decide whether you have good reason to call in sick, get to a doctor, or just get up and go.

Sniffles, Sneezes, Fever and Coughs

If you are sniffling but have no other symptoms - no aches or fever -- it's likely to be allergies. No excuse - grab a tissue and go to work.

If you have a stuffy nose, a productive cough, stuffed up sinuses and you feel achy and tired, it is likely a cold. Sometimes there will be a low-grade fever as well.

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