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Sick – Stay off or Keep Working? Does it Matter?

Dilbert and going into the office sick cartoon. Credit: Scott Adams

Being Sick – Etiquette Over the Years

Let’s start with some cold hard facts, no pun intended, on the impact of going to work sick! Harvard’s The Workplace and Health report found that, of employees surveyed on the reasons they did not stay off, 73% said they weren’t sick enough, 37% wanted to save them for another time, 28% said there was no one to cover their workload, 20% claimed that they had too much work to complete and 20% said not taking time off would help them get ahead. 

Those figures are pre-pandemic…so it raises the natural question of whether personal decision-reasoning is the same today? It is difficult to say – there is no doubt that the pandemic has had a profound effect on workplace health and safety based on the updated Harvard collaborative research in this area. We see significant change given the rethinking actively underway on workplace safety. It is evolving from an injury-based environmental approach to a workplace wellness one. It is visibly manifesting itself with the redesign of future workspaces and resetting of expectations. 

The questions around what it will do to individual workplace decision-making when we are unwell remain to be seen. However, we can easily evaluate the question of going into an office ill from a personal leadership perspective.

A compass to ground decision making 

The basis of decision-making has been studied and debated for years, but we need a common and agreed-upon starting point. A helpful starting point is grounded in:

  1. Ethics, and
  2. Our values

An Ethical Framework

The University of Oxford’s Mindfulness Centre described the ethical principles that underpin a wide range of global frameworks in use. It is based on the core principle of professional ethics codes: to work for the benefit and wellbeing of all while avoiding, minimizing, and mitigating harm, and on other principles that are common to professional ethical codes dating back centuries and from many parts of the world:

  1. Commitment: Work for the benefit of others and do no harm.
  2. Competence: Work only within the boundaries of your education, training, study, or professional experience.
  3. Respect for rights and dignity: Respect the dignity and worth of all people, and the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality, and self-determination.
  4. Integrity: Promote honesty, and truthfulness in all actions and interactions

Our Values

Values are a strong influencing force because values classify how we attach significance, worth, importance, and meaning to things. Values help us explain why different people process the same thing in different ways, or why we ourselves can sometimes process the same thing in different ways (as our frame of mind changes throughout the day, or the week). It is down to value-based decision-making.

But how does this tie back to our decision-making when faced with a decision to stay off or work in the face of illness, and the linkage to our careers?

Putting it into practice – sick: stay off or work?

Let’s use an example in Josefina. She has been at Acme Phone Co. for a few years. The company’s culture is one of working hard, no matter the hardship, by putting the customer first before all other commitments. Josefina has a strong work ethic herself, one underpinned by working smart rather than longer hours. She wants to achieve her next promotion to Chief Marketing Officer within the next year, and it’s looking good because she has diligently worked hard for it. The decision is down to her and a peer, Harsh. He works all hours of the day and night, he’s hungry for the job – and at any cost!

One spring day, Josefina develops a fever and a sore throat followed by a chest infection…before you know it, she’s quite sick. She agonizes over the decision to carry on working or take the time to get better…. on the one hand, she desperately wants the promotion and on the other, she knows her body has other ideas. How should she decide?

Decision-making guide when feeling sick and deciding if to stay off or work. Author: D Wray, Copyright 2022

Promotions are often decided on a series of actions and behaviours, including ones where we put the long-term benefit of the company at the centre rather than our own short-term ambitions (which might be the approach Harsh would have chosen, to the fairly quick detriment of his peers when they became ill as well). Additionally, putting others first is a strong and positive signal in cultures that value the collective over the individual, so through this lens Josefina is also better off staying at home and resting.

So the next time you feel a little sneezy (and you don’t have pals around to help you stop), consider using this simple ethics and values decision-making approach to doing the right things when it matters most.

Final Thoughts

By changing the way we think about the benefits and success of others in the long term demonstrates a pattern of sound decision-making that respects ourselves and everyone around us. It is in this foundation that we should assess whether or not to say home when we are sick. Doing the right thing is not always easy, but it is important for our career success!

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your tips for how you make decisions that can affect your career in either the short or long-term. 

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