Let’s learn one thing from COVID — stop making other people sick

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

We’ve all been there — it’s the middle of cold and flu season. A co-worker comes in to the office, hacking and sniffling. Everybody around them says that they should just go home and take care of themselves, but the sick colleague won’t. There’s an important meeting, or too much to get done. They took some medicine, and now, they claim, “I don’t feel so bad.” They take a quiet pride in their toughness and hoping that the boss notices their “dedication” to the job.

They’ve sent their sick kids to school, too — the kids have to go somewhere, since their mom and dad went to work. Plus, they don’t want the kids to get soft and think they can take the day off of school every time they have the sniffles. The kids spend the day coughing all over their classmates and teachers.

The result of these acts of heroism in the face of the common cold? The sick people who went to work and school probably didn’t get much done, and what they did they didn’t do all that well. And they likely infected lots of other people around them. One case turns into dozens; many people’s weeks are ruined because one family wouldn’t just stay home and watch TV for a couple of days.

There’s a long list of things I wish our country would learn from COVID — health care should be considered a human right, we should make more sacrifices for the common good, we should do more to protect the most vulnerable in society — but it seems like we’re learning very little in these areas. So I’ll set my sights a little lower. Can we all agree that it’s kind of ridiculous for people to come into work and school when they’re contagious with a disease?

Now, I should stipulate up front that I’m mostly talking about white-collar, salaried office jobs here. There are many hourly jobs in this country where taking off for sickness would result in lost wages or even termination. This is ridiculous, and in a compassionate country, we would have policies that prevent people from having to choose whether they’re going to stay home with the flu or pay the heating bill. Everyone should have the choice to stay home when they don’t feel well, and we need policies to ensure this.

But for those of us with sick days we can use and the autonomy to use them, we need a new approach.

First, let’s acknowledge something important. People who come into the office when sick usually think they have to. I’ve done it myself, thinking — “I can do it; I’m not that sick and I don’t want to burden anyone by staying home. I can sacrifice for my job!” But in reality, coming in sick is usually an act of arrogance or selfishness. What you’re really saying is that you’re indispensable. That if you didn’t come into work for a day or two, everything would fall apart.

Guess what — you’re not that important!

Perhaps you’ve had this experience — I know I have. You wake up sick, you spend the hours between 6 and 7 am laying in bed, wrestling with whether or not to go into work. You catalog the things you “need” to do today, all the reasons that your workplace requires your presence. In the end, you take your temperature, see a fever, and stay home.

And, after you stay home, the world doesn’t fall apart! Everything gets done, or it’s pushed back. When you return to the office, half of your co-workers don’t even realize you were gone. Life and work went on; it’s a little humbling but also a relief.

While we’re on the topic of selfishness, let’s talk for a minute about sending your sick kids into school to infect their classmates and teachers because you “can’t” take off of work to care for them. You’re foisting your problems — and germs — onto other people. Some poor third-grade teacher is going to have to spend the weekend in bed with a fever because you didn’t want to call into the sales meeting. Not great!

Second, COVID has given us a golden opportunity to kill presenteeism — the idea that physically sitting in an office for a certain number of hours is equivalent to working, and that sitting in the office for more hours means you’re working harder.

Millions of jobs went remote during the pandemic and things were mostly fine! Sure, there was a little less office camaraderie, and it was hard for bosses to justify their paychecks without cubicles to drop into, but things were pretty OK.

We all learned the skills necessary for remote work. Even if that meeting today is absolutely crucial for the future of the company, the planet, and the universe — which it isn’t, by the way — you could just attend via Zoom. Everybody is used to it, it’s easy, and it’s no big deal. There’s really no reason for you to come to work and sneeze all over everybody in person. Just stay in bed and send your emails and make your calls and keep your flu (or cold, or strep, or COVID) to yourself.

In the end, staying home is a win-win. It’s good for you! You don’t have to go to work when you feel bad! You can take a day to rest up — after all, your running yourself ragged might be why you got sick anyway. It’s good for the people around you! Not going to work and infecting everybody shows that you are capable of being considerate. And maybe your example will lead to a co-worker staying home next time they get sick, and not infecting you.

It’s actually good for the company and the economy, too. Despite your fantasies that everything will fall apart without your snotty presence, presenteeism actually costs companies money. The assumptions behind presenteeism have been known to be false for over a decade. When people feel like they have to show up in the office even when they’re not feeling up to it, productivity suffers badly. An Australian study found that workers who drag themselves into the office and spread disease cost the country’s economy $34 billion a year.

So let’s learn at least one thing from COVID. When you’re sick, just stay home. It’s the best thing to do for yourself and the considerate thing to do for others.