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When are you too sick to go into work?

90 percent of workers admit to going to the office with cold or flu symptoms and 33 percent always show up when ill, dedication that’s likely misplaced and hurting companies' bottom lines.

With cold and flu season upon us, many professionals will face the tough decision of calling in sick or just powering through, despite the fact that most companies discourage working when sick.

In new research from staffing firm Accountemps, 90 percent of professionals admitted they’ve gone to the office with cold or flu symptoms. Of those respondents, 33 percent always show up while ill.

Why delay recovery and risk infecting colleagues? The most common reason provided by professionals is they have too much work to do (54 percent); 40 percent don’t want to use a sick day, 34 percent felt pressure from their employer to show up, and 25 percent said their co-workers also report to work sick.

While you may worry about falling behind if you take a sick day, it’s far better to stay home, unplug, and rest when you feel the flu coming on or you’re contagious with a viral illness.

“Most people are well intentioned,” says Sasha Truckenbrod, branch manager at Robert Half in Madison. “They come in even when they aren’t feeling well because they don’t want to fall behind in their work or burden colleagues who cover for them. Employers should encourage staff to stay home if they are under the weather and provide tips on what employees can do to prevent the spread of illness in general.”

Trey Barnette, regional vice president at Robert Half, tells CNBC that it’s concerning that so many workers feel the need to come in to work sick, adding that the practice has the potential to negatively impact organizations’ bottom lines.

“People aren’t at 100 percent when they’re coming in sick, so it’s going to show within the work that they do,” notes Barnette. “Also, from a monetary standpoint, if you are coming in sick and you are contagious, you can get someone else sick. That means other people are now starting to use the benefits of the company, and that could drive up benefit premiums.

“Employers should lead by example,” Barnette adds. “If you’re sick, definitely take time off. But I think the biggest thing is for each company to look at their benefits and see what they can do to provide a more welcoming package for people taking sick leave.”

In an ideal world, we’d all have unlimited sick days and paid time off, along with someone to bring us chicken soup, but that’s usually not the case. Besides potentially making your illness worse and infecting others in the process, going to work sick can cost your employer, too. Here are some general tips about when and how to call in sick.

A checklist to follow when calling in sick:

  1. Send an email or call your manager at the start of the day. Make sure you know ahead of time the preferred method of alerting your boss when you’re sick.
  2. Send another message to key members of your team to let them know you are calling in sick and if you will be responding to email. This is especially important when you have a project you’re working on or a deadline coming up.
  3. Keep it brief and to the point. There’s no need to divulge specific details about your symptoms.
  4. Never lie or exaggerate your illness. It can come back to bite you and permanently damage your credibility.

When to absolutely stay home

  • If you’re seriously sneezing and coughing. This is how a cold spreads, and if you don’t have your own office, frequent coughing is likely to disturb your co-workers.
  • If you have active symptoms, such as chills, fatigue, and body aches. These are early signs of the flu, and you are often contagious a day before you have symptoms.
  • If you have a fever. A high temperature signals that your body is fighting something off and that you need to rest. Staying home to rest will help you recover more quickly.
  • If you are vomiting or have diarrhea. Things like food poisoning and 24-hour bugs need bed rest and lots of fluids more than anything.
  • If you’re otherwise contagious. Anyone with a condition such as pink eye should definitely stay home to avoid passing on the illness to others.
  • If the medication you’re on affects your alertness. You won’t be at 100 percent while trying to do your job, and driving could be dangerous. Don’t risk it.

When it makes sense to go back or keep working

  • If you’re no longer contagious. You are capable of transmitting the cold or flu virus to others for about a week after you initially get sick.
  • If you’re feeling a lot better. Once you’re out of the danger zone, or your doctor has given you the thumbs up, going to work can be a relief from the monotony of staying home sick.
  • If it’s just allergies. They’re annoying, not contagious, so there is no need to worry about getting your co-workers sick. Do consider taking a decongestant or antihistamine to minimize your coughing and sneezing, though.

Of course, a major caveat to actually getting employees to stay home sick is ensuring workers have enough paid sick time. Often, workers who should stay home don’t because they don’t have any or enough paid time off.

According to an article from Marketplace.org, health-policy advocates point out that Americans often have close direct contact with those sick workers who are least likely to get paid sick leave. That includes restaurant workers (just 24 percent) and retail workers (47 percent), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Calling in sick for these workers often means losing a day of wages, or even risking being fired.

“Showing up sick and underperforming at work, or even damaging equipment or products because of diminished capacity or the effects of medication, is known as presenteeism in HR-parlance,” notes Marketplace. “The Centers for Disease Control reports lost productivity from illness costs employers $225 billion annually; and it cites data from the Harvard Business Review that the cost of presenteeism is $150 billion or higher.”

Workers at the top of the income scale, such as managers and other professionals, are most likely to receive paid sick leave, notes Marketplace. The rate is 84 percent among the top quartile of income-earners, whereas just 30 percent of earners in the bottom quartile get paid sick time.

There are currently no federal laws requiring employers to provide paid sick leave for their employees, and sick leave laws vary from state to state. As of March, only 11 states — Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington — require private employers to offer paid sick leave.

While some jobs or work tasks cannot be performed remotely, many others can. When workers say they’re not so sick that they can’t still perform their jobs, they may be right. The best course of action, however, would be for managers to encourage employees to work from home whenever possible. This can obviously allow workers to retain sick days that might be in short supply for times they are unable to work. It’s also best achieved when managers model this behavior themselves.

If your company allows it, and you’re feeling up to it, experts agree working from home is a good option. But keep in mind that the most important thing may be to focus on getting better. Pushing yourself when you’re sick may have the opposite effect.

By taking care of yourself and getting some rest after calling in sick, you’ll be on the road to recovery and back to work more quickly.

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