If your only options when you’re sick are going into the office or calling off, then obviously if you’re contagious, you should call off. But now that so many of us have the option of working from home when we can’t make it to the office, the decision becomes a little trickier.
This also applies to people who work remotely all the time. Speaking as one of them, I sometimes have a hard time telling whether it’s really OK to take a day off, or if I should prop myself up at my computer and put in something resembling a workday. This is mostly my own anxiety, though. It should go without saying that if you’re sick, you deserve to rest. So here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re on the fence.
Do you have a fever?
There are plenty of symptoms that won’t necessarily interfere with work, like having a mildly runny nose (just keep some tissues handy). But a fever is one pretty good place to draw the line.
When you have a fever, your body will want you to bundle up and lie in bed. You’re not going to be able to get much work done that way. Even if your fever is off-and-on, chances are, it will return before the workday is over and you’re not going to be at your sharpest in the meantime. Go back to bed.
Are your symptoms above or below the neck?
This is an old runners’ saw, but I think it applies here too. Runners say it’s fine to exercise if your symptoms are only above the neck (sniffly nose, congestion) but to stay home if any symptoms extend below the neck (phlegmy lungs, fever, muscle aches, overall fatigue).
You don’t have to follow that exact dividing line, but you get the idea. Just as a fever signals your body needs time to rest, so do symptoms like fatigue and vomiting.
Will you actually be productive?
Let’s ask a different kind of question: If you decide to work, what will your workday actually be like? If you’ll be sitting at your desk, feeling basically fine, but occasionally reaching for the tissues—yeah, that sounds like a reasonable work-from-home day.
On the other hand, if you’ll be struggling to have a coherent thought, fighting sleep, constantly running to the bathroom, or coughing uncontrollably all day—sitting at a desk for eight hours isn’t exactly going to be good for you or your employer. Save everyone the trouble by letting them know you aren’t going to be available.
How will you spend the day if you call off?
I’m putting this question last because it’s likely to spark the most anxiety. If you have a cold, is it OK to do something enjoyable like watching TV? If you can physically make it to the drugstore to buy some cough medicine, does that mean you should have been working instead?
I hope these questions sound silly, because they are. If you need to rest, rest. Yes, you may watch TV and read books while you rest. Ideally you’ll have somebody around to go buy you medicine and make you soup, but if not, there’s nothing hypocritical about using your small amount of available energy for a grocery run. (Do wear a mask, though, to avoid spreading your germs.)
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself where you’ll be working. If you can only envision working if you get to bring your laptop into bed with you, you should stay in bed and leave the laptop out of it.
On the other hand, if your thought is, “I’ll spend all day working on that novel I’m writing” or “time to get some yard work done,” you’re not looking at an actual sick day—but perhaps you need a mental break due to burnout. That’s fine and good, but it’s an entirely different set of questions to ask yourself.