How to get work done while sick

Writer. Nurse. Shutterbug. Vegetarian.

No Sick Time Allowed! Doctors and Nurses Work While Sick.

Do doctors and nurses work while sick? Yes, we work while we are sick. Why? We’re not allowed to take sick time. We take care of sick people, but are not permitted to be out sick ourselves. This isn’t written in any policy, but it is the understood law of the land.

Recent findings published this week in JAMA Pediatrics confirm what I already know – doctors, nurses and other medical professionals work while sick. Here is a summary of the survey:

The purpose of this study was to understand how frequently and why attending physicians and advanced practice clinicians work while sick.

Ninety-four percent of respondents believed that working while sick puts patients at risk.

Despite recognizing the risk, 446 respondents (83.1%) worked sick at least once in the past year, with 50 (9.3%) reporting having worked sick more than 5 times in the past year.

Primary reasons why respondents work sick included not wanting to let colleagues and patients down, extreme logistic challenges in finding coverage, a strong cultural norm to work through sickness, and ambiguity about what constitutes too sick to work.

Over the last thirty years, I’ve worked at several hospitals and out-patient settings. The pressure to work while sick was the same. It is not specific to one employer. While “sick time” is included in benefits packages, healthcare workers are discouraged from using it. It is the cultural norm.

What constitutes too sick to work? If you can’t stand up, you can’t work. But we’ll do everything we can to keep you standing. If you can stand on one leg (as in a recent case of a healthcare worker with a broken foot) and use a scooter for the other, you can work.

Fever? Dehydration? Nausea? Vomiting? Diarrhea? Headache? Cough? No problem. Doctors and nurses help each other to keep going. Just start an IV line, run in some fluids for the fever and dehydration, push an anti-emetic for the nausea, then take a few Imodium to stop the runs. Swallow Robitussin. Add IV Tylenol or a couple of tablets and we’re cured (or at least covered up the symptoms). Cap off the IV and leave it in for use later in the day when the medications wear off. Cover with a sleeve long enough to hide the IV site. We don’t want the patients to know we are sick.

Why don’t we take sick time off? We can’t. Doctors have obligations. Patients don’t want to hear their surgery is cancelled or a physician they don’t know will perform it instead. Patients don’t want to have their long awaited appointment cancelled because the provider doesn’t feel good. Resident physicians have to put in a minimum amount of hours to graduate. Taking sick time eats into the few weeks of vacation they can take. And getting somebody to cover a long shift is problematic. Nurses generally work thirteen hour shifts, many times short on staff already. Somebody has to cover those thirteen hours – that is if you can find a nurse who isn’t already burned out or sick, too. We also feel the obligations to our coworkers and patients.

Working while sick is our cultural norm. We don’t want to let down our patients or our coworkers. We’ll keep each other going, because calling out up is not an option.

Is it right? Not really. We shouldn’t put our patients at risk by working sick. We’re not at our best when sick, but we are obliged to function perfectly for patient safety, and it is exhausting to do so in the face of illness. We shouldn’t expose our patients to potential contagions, either, such as the flu (you did get your flu shot, didn’t you?).

But our patients come first, and we’ll put ourselves at risk to care for them. Because somebody has to do it, and we’re it.

Source: JAMA Pediatr. Published online July 06, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.0684

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How to get work done while sick

You’ve got a major project at work this week, and the deadline is absolute. You work hours of overtime, lose out on sleep, and before you know it, you’re sick as a dog.

It’s a nightmare scenario that we’ve all faced a dozen times before. You’re too sick to work, but still tied up in a project that is too important to neglect. So what can you do?

If you need to stay productive while also dealing with a nasty cold or flu, here are some tips that may be able to help you get better while also helping you to deal with your overwhelming workload.

1. Take a Day Off

For many people who have major projects on the horizon, this is not going to be a your first option. That being said, you may be so sick that you really don’t have much of a choice.

As a migraine sufferer, I’ve learned that I can’t be my usual workaholic self when I’ve got my head in a toilet. If you are sick, really, truly, terribly sick, you need to take it easy. Not only will you be back to your normal self much sooner, but you will also prevent yourself from making stupid mistakes at work or while communicating with co-workers.

2. Load Up on Cold Cures

Scarf down six bowls of chicken noodle soup, drink a gallon of OJ, drink lots of clear fluids, and take plenty of vitamins. Take over the counter cold drugs, or herbal remedies like echinacea (after making sure that you aren’t at risk for any unintended side effects.)

Do whatever it takes to get better. If you eat right and get plenty of fluids, you’ll be better equipped to keep working on important, time-sensitive projects without having to go back and revise your previous work while sick. Just beware of certain drugs (like some sinus-clearing over the counter pills) that can cause drowsiness or the dreaded “medicine head.”

You may also find relief from taking hot showers, applying hot or cold compresses to your skin and face, drinking lots of hot herbal tea, and sleeping with an extra pillow under your neck to position your head for improved draining of the sinus cavities.

3. Work in Short Bursts

It will take you longer to get in a full 8 hour day, but by working in short bursts with frequent breaks, you can keep up your energy levels and ensure that you stay completely focused on the task at hand.

This might be an excellent time to experiment with the Pomodoro Technique, a time management technique where you budget your time into short increments and take breaks periodically. You work for 25 minutes, then take break for five minutes… and when you are feeling under the weather, this gives you much needed rest while also giving you a sense of accomplishment.

4. Isolate Yourself from Co-workers

If you must work, you should work from home, or in some other way that isolates you from your co-workers. That way, if you were working on the same project with them, you wont cripple the whole team by spreading around your sickness. This ensures that even if your productivity is lower, the productivity of the rest of your team will be unaffected.

5. Look to the Future

When Alex Fayle of the blog Someday Syndrome is too sick to work, he still manages to stay productive by changing the focus of his work. Rather than work on pressing, urgent projects that he might mistakes on due to his illness, he instead focuses on long-term planning and thinking about his future career goals.

“I could have gotten cranky. I could have pushed myself and produced utter crap, he explains. “Or I could have taken a break and let whatever was bothering me pass. My lazy tendencies stirred long enough to convince me of the virtue in the last option… But I wasn’t completely unproductive. I also took the time to come up with a series of visions for my future – not the outcome kind of future but an action-based one. I looked 6 months, 1 year, 3 years and 5 years into the future and decided what I was doing… People who picture future actions rather than future outcomes are more likely to achieve their goals.”

How do you maximize your productive hours when you are suffering from a serious cold or nasty flu bug? Tell us in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, or take the conversation over to Facebook.

How to get work done while sick

The thing about being sick is that it always feels like this is the worst it’s ever been. Like it’s never going to end.

And nothing’s worse than having to work when you feel like crap–having to think when your head feels like it’s filled with cotton; having to sit in meetings when all you want to do is crawl into bed; having to make important decisions when you were up all night coughing and wheezing.

You know exactly what I’m talking about.

There is, however, a silver lining in all the suffering. Over the years, I’ve tried pretty much everything. So I know what works and what doesn’t. Here are seven ways to be effective at work when it’s the last thing you feel like doing.

Lighten up and let go. We overachievers have a nasty way of being hardest on ourselves at exactly the wrong time, like when we’re sick. Cancel trips and meetings you don’t absolutely have to take. And don’t let your mood influence your behavior. This is not a time to take on your boss or a problem co-worker. Trust me; it’ll end badly. And remember: Stress is bad for your immune system.

Meditate. No, this isn’t some mumbo jumbo religious junk. It’s science, and it’s real. Mindfulness meditation is capable of helping with pain, illness, anxiety, and stress. The hands-down leader in the field is Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and best-selling author of Wherever You Go, There You Are. Get the audio book.

Medicate. Find real medicine that works for you and doesn’t produce side effects that are worse than the illness. For example, some decongestants make me hyper and irritable. Not good. Forget Airborne and all those other dietary supplements and homeopathic remedies. They don’t do a thing. But if you’re particularly susceptible to placebos, by all means, go for it.

Coffee, yes. Alcohol, no. When you have to work, drink tea or anything with caffeine. Just be sure to hydrate with plenty of plain water and juices, as well. Stay away from alcohol, period. It won’t do you any good, and it will dehydrate you. Also, sunshine is a great stimulant. Anything to improve your mood. Speaking of which, get dressed. It’ll help you feel human again.

Keep it to yourself. Some of us just have to complain when we’re sick. I fall into that category. Here’s the thing. Don’t. Trust me, nobody wants to hear your whining. Want to know what else nobody wants to hear? Your coughing up a lung and blowing who-knows-what out of your nose. Do it in the bathroom. Better yet, whine to your spouse and be disgusting at home.

Find a way, any way, to sleep. When we’re sick, we tend to throw all our good habits out the window. We can’t sleep, and if we feel like eating at all, we want comfort foods. Thing is, your immune system needs the right foods, fluids, and sleep to fight disease so you can get better faster. However you do it, find a way to sleep. A lot. And don’t skip the vegetables.

Set a good example. If you’re a boss, listen up. Your people watch you like a hawk. They emulate your behavior and follow your priorities. Send them the right message by taking care of yourself. And when your people are sick, tell them to go home and come back when they’re feeling better. If you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of you.

This really comes down to common sense. Do smart things that will help you heal quicker and feel better, not dumb things that will make you feel worse and prolong the agony. The most important thing, above all, is to take care of your own and your employees’ health. That’s absolutely the best way to take care of your business, guaranteed.

How to get work done while sick

During flu season, every person should show some caution if they’re experiencing flu symptoms. That means skipping out on that trip to the movies or a restaurant, but also using a sick day at work.

Staying home while sick is the best way to keep your fellow employees free of the virus you’re battling.

But, many workers don’t have the option to stay home from work while sick without the luxury of sick pay. They simply can’t afford to miss time at work, whether due to money or the duties of their job.

Work often has to come first in the modern society, with the average work week only getting longer in recent decades. Obviously, you need to stay home if you have pneumonia or strep throat (because both are contagious), but most of us go to work when we’re sick.

The good news is that there are plenty of healthy tips you can follow that will help you get through the day when you’re not feeling your best. The following are a few guidelines you can follow to feel better when working while sick:

  • Drink a lot of clear liquid, including water, broth, tea, and orange juice. Try to avoid drinking coffee, heavily caffeinated drinks, and alcohol. The old wife’s tale that says a “hot toddy” will help cure your cold isn’t true because alcohol dehydrates your system. Eating ice chips will also help clear your sore throat.
  • Just in case you can’t give up the caffeine, be sure to chase it down with plenty of water.
  • Keep in mind that second-hand smoke can bother your nose, throat, and lungs. Make it much easier for yourself by staying away from all kinds of smoke, including cigarette smoke, smoke from a fire and pollution.
  • Although over-the-counter cold remedies are helpful and offer some quick relief, they won’t shorten the amount of time you are sick. When you take these types of medicines, be sure to read the labels and avoid using too many of them.
  • Better yet, find an over-the-counter medicine that really works and doesn’t produce side effects. Many people don’t know that decongestants can make you feel irritable and tired. You should also avoid taking placebo-type medicines like dietary supplements and homeopathic remedies.
  • Use a saline spray to help clear congestion by loosening your mucous membranes.
  • If you’ve been sick for more than seven days, and you’re not feeling better, it may be more than a cold, and a simple virus can quickly turn into a bacterial infection. Call your doctor immediately to see if you need antibiotics to clear it up.
  • Last but not least, you need to get plenty of sleep when you are sick. Keep in mind that your immune system needs the right foods, fluids and sleep to feel better faster. After that long day of work, turn in an hour or two earlier to encourage your immune system.

One key method to avoid working while sick is to stay free of the illness in the first place. During the flu season, the flu shot provides reliable protection against that year’s most prominent strains.

Do you have any other questions about keeping you and your office healthy? Passport Health can help! Give us a call at or fill out a contact form for more information.

Written for Passport Health by Jerry Olsen. He has over 15 years of combined experience as a writer and editor in Salt Lake City. Jerry’s writing topics range from health care, travel, life science to medical technology and technical writing.

Created byВ FindLaw’s team of legal writers and editors | Last updated April 10, 2020

Most people think if you are sick, you should stay at home until you are completely better. Unfortunately, some managers may tell employees they need to come back to work or discourage them from taking sick time. This is understandably stressful for the sick employee as well as coworkers, customers, or patients who have to be around them.

This is technically legal, but you might be able to ignore their request. To understand the answer to this question, consider:

  • Are you following your work’s sick leave policy?
  • Is your boss ignoring your work’s sick leave policy?
  • Are you hoping to take paid time off? Do you have sick time left?
  • Can you afford to take unpaid time off?
  • Does working require you to break the law, like during a quarantine or stay-at-home order?

Even with a doctor’s note or contagious illness, you still must follow your company’s sick policy or you risk losing your job or your pay for that day.

When Can My Boss Ask Me to Work?

Technically, your boss can ask you to come in at any time. They can also be upset or write you up for not showing up — especially if you don’t call to let them know.

It is your responsibility to explain that you are sick and unable to come in.

Many employers provide paid time off (PTO) for sickness. This should be used if you have it. Bosses typically should not deny your request for sick time off, whether they’re happy about it or not.

But you may not need to listen to your boss’s demands that you work. That depends on the company sick policy and your job status.

Job Status May Determine Your Sick Time

Depending on your employment status or contract, your manager can legally choose to not pay you for the time you did not work that day. An example of this is not getting paid for a restaurant cook shift you could not attend.

In some cases, that might be a fair trade for you to be able to stay home while sick. But other people may expect to get their paid sick time off with no questions asked. After all, that is why sick time is available, right?

Being asked to come in after saying you are sick is tricky. An at-will employee could be let go if they have no time off left and refuse to come in.

Company Sick Leave Policies Apply

Your company likely has policies in place when you are sick such as requiring you to:

  • Provide several hours’ notice that you cannot work
  • Contact your manager or human resources representative
  • Move your work to a backup person
  • Find someone to cover your shift
  • Use vacation time if sick time runs out

Short term FMLA leave may apply if your sick time and vacation time both run out.

You Always Have Options for Unpaid Sick Leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can provide you with sick time for longer illnesses — but this is unpaid.

If your work does not let you come back after taking FMLA leave, or fires you when you return, you may have a wrongful termination claim.

Doctors’ Notes Don’t Always Fix the Problem

A boss may ask you for a doctor’s note or proof of your need for time away. You do not need to show them anythingВ untilВ you are coming back to work.

Note: You do not need to go into details about your sickness. This is private information. Any boss that pushes for more information is out of line. Your HR department, however, may be able to ask for more details.

To protect your general privacy, you can ask the doctor to give you a note that just says:

  • You were seen on a specific date
  • The date you can return to work

Culture Around Sick Time Off

There are stereotypes that employees use sick time just to take a day off, or that people work from home while “sick” but really are just slacking off.

This culture around sick time may be the reason some managers do not believe their employees or force them to come into work.

What Should I Do If I’m Forced to Work?

If you must go into work or risk being fired, follow these steps:

  • Tell everyone around you that you are sick
  • Wear a mask or wash your hands often
  • Keep your distance from coworkers and customers
  • Reaffirm to your boss that you are sick — your visible symptoms may help convince them you should not be there
  • Report any complaints about you being at work to your boss

It often helps to communicate with your coworkers and boss, such as “I came in today, but I do not think I should be back in tomorrow” or “I would like two days from home, and then I will try to be back in the office.”

When You Can/Should Go Back to Work

You can go back to work when you are feeling better. Companies may:

  • Require a doctor’s letter saying you can go back to work
  • Need your word that a doctor has approved your return to work
  • Accept you saying, “I am contagious for two weeks” and gladly let you stay home and return when you are ready.

Other companies, such as jobs that do not offer work from home or service-industry jobs, may try to force you back before you are ready because they need people on-site to keep the business running.

Do not return to work out of guilt or pressure. Your job is to keep yourself and the people around you healthy.

Arm Yourself for Sick Leave Trouble

If youВ suspect your boss will frown on taking sick time, knowing your company’s sick policies is your best chance. Labor boards in your state are a good ally to back you up if your boss abuses the sick leave policies.

Firing someone who had a documented illness and followedВ the sick leave company policies would be a bad mark on any company.

An attorney can review your situation, the labor boards might take up your case, and you can let unemployment know why you were fired when you apply for it.

You have a cold, maybe an annoying cough. But what if you can’t call in sick and you have to be at work? These tips can help you make it through the day.

Drink. Sip water, juice, broth, and other clear liquids all day. Staying hydrated helps your immune system fight sickness. It can also help loosen mucus and replace fluids you lose from blowing your nose. Keep a healthy supply of drinks right at your desk.

But avoid coffee, caffeinated sodas, and energy drinks. When it’s quitting time, say “no” to hot toddies. Alcohol is dehydrating, too.

Eat ice chips. If your throat hurts, ice chips may help with soreness and pain. Bonus: They’ll also keep you hydrated.

Spray. Use a saline spray to help a stuffy nose. It helps congestion by loosening mucus and rinsing your sinuses.

Numb up. If a hacking cough is wearing you out, keep cough drops, throat spray, and over-the-counter cough suppressants at your desk. The first two can help numb and soothe a sore throat. A cough suppressant can keep that “need to cough” feeling away.

Relieve your pain. Over-the-counter acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen bring down a fever and help with aches.

Other over-the-counter cold remedies can be helpful, too. But you should know that while they can make you feel a bit better, they won’t shorten how long you’re sick. Some cold medicines have pain relievers in them, too, so you could accidentally take more than you need. Read labels first, and try not to use more than one medication at a time.

Avoid smoke.Smoking, secondhand smoke, and other not-so-fresh air can really bother your nose, throat, and lungs. Make it easier on yourself while you’re getting better.

Still sick? Call your doctor. If you’ve been sick for 7 days and you’re not getting better — or if you’re getting worse — it may be more than a cold. Your cold (usually caused by a virus) may have given way to a bacterial infection. Call your doctor to see if you need antibiotics to clear it up.

Be a loner. To avoid passing your germs to co-workers, avoid contact with others as best you can. Sneeze and cough into the crook of your elbow — not into your hands. Wash your hands often with soap and water, and avoid shaking hands.

Rest. After work, go home and get a good meal — try chicken soup. Then, get in bed! When you’re sick, your body needs rest and sleep. Give it what it needs to get better.

Vaporize. While you rest or sleep, run a clean humidifier or a cool-mist vaporizer in your room. It can ease stuffiness and help you breathe better.


California State Polytechnic University Student Health Services: “When to Go See a Doctor.”

CDC: “Cold and Flu Season: No Reason for Antibiotics,” “Symptom Relief.”

FDA: “The best way to take your over-the-counter pain reliever? Seriously.”

Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide: “Sinusitis.”

Ardis Dee Hoven, MD, internal medicine and infectious disease specialist Lexington, KY.

News release, University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Let Common Sense Dictate Your Sick Leave Policy

Do you keep your sick days separate from other time off? Do you hire someone specifically to track it? Or do you lump sick leave and vacation days into one big bucket labeled “paid time off?” Do you allow workers to bank sick time and get paid for it, or is it “use it or lose it?” And that’s not even considering short- and long-term disability for workers with chronic illness.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? But the good news is there’s a solution which more and more companies are embracing – an unlimited sick days policy.

Yup, that’s right. Companies across the nation and the world are embracing a “less is more” approach, trusting employees to take the time they need while still getting work done. And while there’s always room for abuse of the system, some companies have stopped looking over employees’ shoulders because it actually works to the business’ advantage. Here are some reasons why.

If workers are all out of sick days they’ll feel they have to come into work or risk not getting paid, or, even worse, losing their job.

One sick person comes into an office with close quarters, and the bug starts spreading. Pretty soon, instead of having one employee out for a few days, you’ve got the bubonic plague spreading through your ranks with dozens of people out of work for various amounts of time.

Just let workers rest and get healthy without having to worry about coming in, or allow them to work from home so they can at least get a little bit done while they’re feeling sick.

How does being out sick lead to more work being done? Easy.

Sick people are often distracted and not working to their maximum potential. Workers who aren’t worried about sick days will take the time they need to recover and then come back to work healthy and productive.

If you want to have a system that tracks paid time off and sick leave, you have to pay at least one or more employees

Many companies that monitor sick leave either have employees and their managers keep track of days themselves or hire a human resources employee to track it all. That usually means purchasing some sort of tracking software, all to determine if Jim from accounting actually has that one last day to take off because of the flu.

Instead, leave it up to employees and their direct supervisors to work sick time out amongst themselves. As long as no one is abusing the privilege and deadlines are still being met, the company is fine with not breathing down its workers’ necks. This policy saves on personnel and software costs normally spent on tracking.

Simply put, if employees feel respected they’re more likely to stay.

No one likes to work for a micromanager, and no one wants to choose between their health and a paycheck. If you have employees – especially top-performers – you value and want to keep, then keeping them happy becomes a huge priority. And even though employees usually list salary as their biggest concern, work/life balance is significant as well.

You’ve probably complained about your sneezing, sniffling co-worker, until you’re the one to coming into work with a cold.

Germs seem to spread in the office as mightily as they did back in grade school, and it might be partly because one out of every four Americans shows up to work sick. Now new research finds people around the globe are prone to working when they should be home in bed, most likely due to a combination of high job demands and low job security.

To better understand “presenteeism,” or the act of attending work while under the weather, researchers at the University of East Anglia looked at data from 61 previous studies with more than 175,960 participants from 34 countries to identify the most common reasons why people came in when they were sick.

The study found that job demands, including heavy workload, understaffing, time pressures and financial difficulties, were a significant reason people stuck it out in the office. On the other hand, workers will take a sick day when they have supportive colleagues and a positive relationship with managers.

This latest study corroborates a previous poll that found many American workers saying they “can’t afford to be sick and miss work.” The research suggests that companies could benefit from reducing employees’ workload and overtime hours and also providing them with the resources they need.

“Although increasing job resources, such as job control and colleague, supervisor, and organizational support, can be helpful in tackling presenteeism through their positive impact on health, our results suggest that controlling job demands represents a key line of defense against the behavior,” said lead researcher Mariella Miraglia, a lecturer in organizational behavior at UEA’s Norwich Business School.

Going to work sick is bad for you and for your company. Beyond putting strain on your immune system and exposing your co-workers, working while sick puts a strain on the economy. According to a 2003 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, sick employees at the office cost the national economy $160 billion in lost productivity every year.

Unfortunately, paid sick leave is not mandated in every office in the U.S., though if it were, the country’s flu rates would decrease by at least five percent, according to a study from economists at Cornell University and the Swiss Economic Institute. President Barack Obama has begun to repair the issue: This year he announced that starting in 2017, federal contractors must provide workers with paid sick time. The order provides one hour of leave for every 30 hours of work, for up to seven paid sick days a year.

To reduce the likelihood of getting sick this year, wash your hands and get the flu shot. Oh, and maybe offer to take over a project for your sick colleague — they’ll appreciate it, and so will everyone who sits around them.

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