Does working while you are sick make you sicker?

Consumer Reports News: May 03, 2009 09:13 AM

A man who's supposed to work five days a week only ever turns up for four. So, he gets paid for four. "Why do you only work a four-day week, Joe?" his boss asks him. "Because I can't manage on three," replies Joe.

Sick leave is an important issue. No one is healthy all the time, but there are no federal legal requirements for paid sick leave. If people work when ill, they may be more likely to make mistakes, which could be dangerous. There's also the risk of passing an illness on to coworkers, which could be a big deal as we face outbreaks of swine flu.

Even so, sick leave tends to be discussed in pretty simplistic terms. Businesses talk about the money they lose through absenteeism, and web sites offer workers tips about how to fake a sick day.

But research from Denmark says taking time off when you’re sick may protect you from more serious illness. The researchers thought that by turning up to work while sick, employees might not give their bodies enough of a chance to recover properly from illness. They asked nearly 12,000 workers how often they went into work while feeling unwell.

During the previous year, about 42 percent of workers said they'd never gone into work feeling sick, or had only done it once. Another 50 percent had gone to work feeling sick between two and five times, and 8 percent had done it six times or more.

Over the next year and a half, the researchers checked which employees had records of long periods of sick leave (two weeks or more). They found that people who went to work while sick had a higher risk of being off sick for at least two weeks during the study.

It's possible that people were making themselves sicker by not taking time to recover, but there could be other explanations. If someone has poor health, they might not want to stay home from work every time they get sick. That type of person might struggle into work more often, and may also be more likely to take longer periods off of work. Another possibility is that people who go to work when sick are generally less careful about their health, and more likely to get seriously ill in the future.

Whether you take a sick day depends on the physical demands of your job, the financial implications and how seriously ill you are. The research so far doesn't give a definite answer about whether working when sick can be harmful, but it's a possibility.

The CDC currently recommends you stay home if you get sick with the flu.

What you need to know. It's not certain that working when sick can lead to health problems in the long run, but it is a possibility. If you have flu symptoms, stay home.

Philip Wilson, patient editor, BMJ Group has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use.

Keep up to date with our swine-flu coverage and recommendations.

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