Jobs and the Future of Work

Remote workers are powering through and working while sick – and it's bad for them and their companies

Remote workers are often less likely to take sick days when they are ill.

Remote workers are often less likely to take sick days when they are ill. Image: Pexels/ Greta Hoffman

Juliana Kaplan
Labor and inequality reporter, Business Insider
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  • People who work from home appear to be much less likely to take sick days when they are ill.
  • This is partly because remote workers feel guilty about taking time off when they are already at home.
  • Managers need to lead by example in building a hybrid culture where staff can take sick days when needed.

Working from home has many benefits. Taking sick days isn't one of them.

That's why it took Jake Sedlacek three years of working from home to have a realization: When he got sick, he didn't have to work through it.

"Taking the day off and making sure you're actually recovered and then doing a great job the next day is way better than doing a week or two weeks of work at 50%, because you're not catching up on sleep or you're feeling bad," Sedlacek, a 27-year-old product manager, said.

Sedlacek, who's based near Chicago, loves remote work. But a big challenge is achieving work-life balance, one that supportive bosses have to guide. Even though he wasn't told to, he said he used to find himself working more hours — just because his office was his house. And he was working through being sick, even at companies where he had unlimited PTO.

Sedlacek isn't alone in that. When Michelle, a 41-year-old accountant, had a mild cold a few months back, she didn't take the day off; she didn't feel the need to. Michelle verified her identity with Insider, but asked that we don't print her last name for privacy reasons.

In previous jobs, she had to show up in person, even when she was sick. "My only option was to go to the office while I was sick and then have people hear me coughing and sneezing and not happy about it, but who else is gonna do my work? I have to meet this deadline," she said.

Michelle, who's been working remotely from Texas since 2018, loves her current job, and doesn't feel the same deadline pressures. She can also avoid getting others sick by working from home.

She said her company would be fine with her taking days off for being sick. But she feels that she hasn't had a bad enough illness to merit it.

"I do think working at home when you're sick is way easier than going to the office because you can sleep in, you don't have to wear makeup, you can wear comfortable clothes, you can take a break as often as you need it," Michelle said.

Paradoxically, some Americans' takeaway from a once-in-a-lifetime deadly pandemic is to work while sick. It's an outgrowth of the ways that the pandemic warped many peoples' relationships with work.

Sick days have become a kind of no-man's land for a certain type of remote worker: It's up to them whether to take it, and people working from home just aren't. In a country that has made sick time a privilege, bosses have to step up to fill that void and assure workers it's OK to take time off. Workers need to feel comfortable deciding to take time off, and feel comfortable articulating those boundaries. It's not always the case that both of these conditions are met.

People feel guilty for taking sick days — but then tend to feel even worse if they don't

Work from home brought perks like no commutes, the ability to exercise in the middle of the day, or do laundry — but some workers, as Insider's Aki Ito reports, work harder and longer to make up for those perks. That's not an inherent issue with working remotely, but rather one that stems from a lack of guardrails and a lack of management intervention.

Guilt, in part, drives the temptation to not call out sick.

That's according to research from Prisca Brosi and Fabiola H. Gerpott, professors at Kühne Logistics University in Hamburg, Germany; and WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, a leading German business school, respectively, who study organizations and leadership.

"We do find that people tend to work from home despite being ill, because they expect that they will actually feel less guilty," Gerpott said. "They think about it, and wonder, 'Oh, if I will continue working, maybe then I can take a little bit of work away from my colleagues, then they don't have to do it.'"

The problem is, Gerpott said, that "human beings are very bad at predicting how they will actually feel." Instead, workers feel more guilty — because they couldn't help their colleagues or themselves very well.

There is one silver lining from the pandemic: People aren't going into work with symptoms anymore and spreading illness. They're just staying at home. And, the researchers said, the hurdle of deciding whether to work while sick is lower — because now you can just default to working from home while sick. But there's a negative cycle, since the more you push yourself, the less you recover, and the less you're able to engage with the tasks at hand.

To build a culture of taking sick time when needed, bosses need to lead by example. "If your leader tells you you can just not work, but you see that your leader always works whenever they are ill, that puts pressure onto others," Gerpott said.

Workers might call in 'silent sick,' but it's bad for them and workplace culture

There's one important part of the sick-days equation: Whether you actually have any. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, around a fifth of civilian workers did not have access to paid leave as of March 2021. But the more money you made, the more likely you were to have access to paid leave. For instance, 95% of the top 10% of earners had access to paid sick leave, while just about a third of the bottom 10% could call off and get paid.

In-person, low-wage workers have said their bosses and companies have pressured them to come in while ill. Paid sick leave — or a lack thereof — is a key issue for workers. Rail workers in the US were prepared to strike and pummel the economy over a contract that did not even include unpaid sick days.

Paid sick leave — or a lack thereof — is a key issue for remote workers.
Paid sick leave — or a lack thereof — is a key issue for remote workers. Image: Pexels/ Marcus Aurelius

Similarly to "quiet-quitting," the feeling that paid sick days are a special perk can lead to what Brosi calls "silent sickness."

"It seems like, oh, people are actually less sick, but obviously this is probably not what is happening," Brosi said. Instead, they're at home and "they are still sick and they just don't officially mention that."

Michelle, for example, had to do the calculus of whether she felt bad enough to completely call out, or just be "silent sick." She said she's more likely to use her unlimited PTO to run an errand or to go to an appointment. Another increasingly common use of sick time: Taking a mental-health day, which, as Bloomberg reported, can be considered a qualifying illness for protected leave.

But Brosi said that if you're using just a day or two of sick time to help shield against burnout or larger issues, "you're trading basically your short-term illness against your long-term."

At the end of the day, the rise of "silent sickness" is a management problem, Brosi said. When workers with unlimited time off and flexible schedules are still logging on, it shows a cultural issue — especially among workers who enjoy their jobs.

For Michelle, it's all about creating a new equation. Sedlacek, who now takes the time when he needs it, is a lot less stressed. He thinks that the urge to keep plugging comes "from the older work culture of 'just work through anything.'"

"It's much more about, OK, we need to think about our working cultures, and how we manage these cultures," Brosi said.

In Sedlacek's case, one of the things that made a difference was working for a company that would restrict workers' access to systems while they were on vacation if they knew those workers would be tempted to log on. He said it's "probably a hundred times easier" to make healthy boundaries if your company proactively encourages them.

In his current role, management has made it clear that people shouldn't work on weekends or into the nights.

"We're shifting into that culture now where people feel comfortable saying 'Hey, I need a mental-health day,' or 'Hey, I need a sick day,' and it's OK," Sedlacek said. "It's not like, 'Oh they're lazy.' It's like, 'Oh, they're actually gonna take care of themselves and still do a good job because they're able to.'

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