My Take: Why Do People Come to Work When They’re Sick? Can We End the ‘Playing Hurt’ Culture Once and For All?

April 27th, 2021

When’s the last time you shook hands with anyone? Conducted an interview in person? Had an (indoor) business lunch with a colleague? The pandemic has changed the very fabric of our day-to-day working lives in ways that are too numerous to count. We think many of the COVID-inspired changes we’ve hastily adopted over the past year are going to be permanent, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Who is chomping at the bit to get back to a daily commute?

Employers have learned that long-held workplace norms can change, and one that I can’t wait to usher permanently out the door is the culture of “playing hurt.”

What I mean by that is going to the office when you’re sick.

Playing hurt must be benched in a post-COVID world

We all know how colds and flu are transmitted. But prior to the pandemic, we actively ignored this and instead “soldiered on,” dragging ourselves to the office carrying a giant box of Kleenex and downing herbal tea all day.

Most everyone has worked in an office where people just don’t stay home when they’re sick. One person comes into work with a cold, coughs incessantly, and within a minute, that bug has gone around their entire department.

But, it’s more than just Greg in accounting refusing to sideline himself when he’s sick. It can be a powerful unwritten cultural rule. Staying home because you’re sick has long been considered a sign of weakness in many office cultures. And, coming in when you’re under the weather was considered a sign of your dedication to your company, your clients, and your team.

How absurd does that sound now after the experiences we’ve all had during the pandemic? 

Why do people come into work when they’re sick?

I’m not sure I’ll ever feel comfortable shaking hands with people again — touching a stranger? Eww — let alone sitting next to them in an office if they are ill. I don’t want to. Neither should you. Can we bench the “playing hurt” culture for good, finally?

Now that the stigma associated with working from home has been laid to rest and technology allows a seamless office presence, we can behave as we should have all along. We can be considerate of others. We can choose not to spread germs for fear of losing face with the boss or client.

Who’s with me?

What it means for PTO policies

Now that that’s settled, the issue of what to do about sick days is yet another matter for HR to rethink as we move into a post-pandemic world. Most of the workplace changes brought about by the pandemic have fallen into HR’s lap, so this is no different.

Does working at home, whether full time or a hybrid model of office and home, call for a rethinking of your company’s sick leave policy? There is no hard-and-fast rule that every company follows when it comes to sick days. If your company has unlimited PTO, you don’t have much thinking to do about sick days. But more commonly, companies allow for X amount of sick days per year on top of PTO. Use ‘em or lose ‘em. Others categorize all time off, whether you’re kayaking in Belize or laying on your couch slathered in Vicks, as PTO. That’s one reason people drag themselves to the office when they’re sick — they don’t want to lose out on vacation time.

Given that many people will continue to work at home, it might be time to take a hybrid, “how sick are you?” approach. If your employees are in bed and unable to work, it’s a sick day. If they are at home and feeling crummy but able to get their work done, no harm, no foul. Or maybe there’s a half-day option.

Whatever the PTO/sick-day mix shakes out to be, it will be what’s right for your company and your employees. It’s exciting to see what positive changes brought about by COVID will stick as we finally emerge into a post-pandemic landscape.

Like what you were reading? We’ve got a lot more to share!Click here to check out other HROI articles and interviews.

Read Next

More Human

Ensure your exiting employees are focusing on their careers – rather than their frustrations.

Modern Outplacement

Our coaching-first model puts the focus on dedicated coaching and great job search technology.

Career Management

Tap into the real potential of your workforce with our Career Management services.

Executive Coaching

Maximize your professional potential through our targeted executive coaching programs.