Open Thread: Working while you’re sick

working while you're sick - how to power through2017 Update: Links have been updated below for this discussion on working while you’re sick; you may also want to check out our latest discussion on 6 Things to Have on Hand When You’re Sick at Work.

When I saw the headline about this — a firmwide memo smacking down an employee who dared to come to work with flu-like symptoms — I was a bit amused. (When I read the memo, I was a bit disgusted — whoever had flu-like symptoms knew he or she would be working in a closed conference room with several others, including a pregnant woman — and I have to agree that it was just as “self-absorbed” as the managing partner said it was.)  But it seems to raise an interesting question:  when you’re forced to work while you’re sick, how do you power twhrough? (Pictured: This exact item is sold out now, but there are tons of great tissue cozies at Etsy.)

Fun story:  for this post I actually spent a bit of time trying to find authoritative information for you guys on when a cold is contagious — I seem to remember it having something to do with the color of your snot (clear = allergies or cold, yellow or green = contagious) and your temperature (over 100 is bad).  I couldn’t actually find any quick and easy source, but really these days, we’re all just going to come down on the same side, aren’t we?  If you’re sick, work from home.

In any event — even if you’re home in your pajamas, you may not have the luxury of lounging about in bed and watching “Real Housewives” reruns.  You may actually have to work.  If you do, here are some tips for working when you’re sick…

(Caveat:  I am not a doctor; these are just my own tips on what works for me.  Feel free to call me insane.)

Take Vitamin C. No matter where you are, when you start to get that telltale tickle in the back of your throat, take Vitamin C. Orange juice from the deli or vending machine will do fine, but I like Emergen-C.  (Less calories.)

Prep your office. If you’re still at the office when you start to get sick, either take paperwork home with you, or — at least! — put your paperwork in a neat pile (or piles) before you leave, instead of leaving it spread around your office.  Because sure, you might be fine tomorrow — but you might wake up feeling like a truck hit you.  In which case, if you need to do work, your office will want to send your paperwork to you by messenger, and you’ll want whoever the lucky person is who’s ransacking your office to find things easily.

tips for working while you're sick - how to work when you feel a cold coming onFigure out what sort of “face time” you need for your office. No office is going to encourage you to come into the office, but in this economy you want to make sure that you’re still getting “points” for doing your work (particularly if you’re nearly killing yourself to do it).  Call whoever you need to call (cough into their voicemail, whatever); be sure to follow it up with a work-related e-mail that shows you’re actually working if you say you are (and if you’re expending energy to do so).

– Sleep in shifts. If you really need to work and are just completely sacked by a cold, stop thinking about a normal “day” and sleep in shifts.  For example:  if you’re exhausted when you get home but have tons more work to do, go to sleep at 9:00.  Set your alarm for midnight — after three hours you’ll have just completed two REM cycles, and you’ll be much more refreshed, focused, and energetic than you would have been had you tried to work until midnight.  (Repeat as necessary until the project is where it needs to be.)

Liquids, liquids, liquids. Soup.  Water.  Tea.  (If you have a nasty cough, I lurve drinking hot water with lemon and honey — the honey soothes the throat and the lemon cuts the phlegm.)  Did I mention soup?  Force the water down — the faster this cold runs its course the sooner you can be back at full speed.

– Quarantine both yourself and your stuff. Don’t be around other people (roommates, spouse, kids, whatever) any more than you have to be.  If you’re working with company books (treatises or whatnot), try to be considerate of them — no sneezing on the materials.  In fact, try to get in the habit of sneezing into your elbow — it’s a better way to go about it in general. When you’re back at the office, feeling better, don’t give your germy paperwork to someone else.  If you were wearing a favorite sweater or wrap or anything (either while sick or in the day or two leading up to getting sick), wash that puppy.  In fact, try to wipe down your whole office (including your telephone handset).

All right, ladies — what are your tips for working when you’re sick?  How do you power through when you have to work and you’re sick?

tips for working when you're sick


  1. I work in healthcare finance, which means I work in a hospital. Our hospital has an absolute zero tolerance for sick employees coming to work and employee health and infection control personnel have not hesitated to send employees home. It’s really more for the protection of the patients, rather than the employees, as most of the workforce has had the H1N1 vaccine. I’m impressed by any firm that would require you to stay home and not count it against your sick days. That should certainly encourage some of the staff from spreading germs on their coworkers.

  2. I had a nasty sinus/bronchial infection a few weeks ago and did have to go to the office a few days with it – I think it can work IF you have a private office and can keep mostly to yourself, and only go in when necessary, and really I didn’t stay for the full days. I could not have had any serious face to face meetings, I was pretty disgusting – so I tried to minimize office time. But even after I was on antibiotics and not contagious anymore, I still had the cough for quite a while and I know people were nervous around me.

  3. Nevadamtnbear :

    Got hit with the sick stick – some upper respiratory thing that was more snot that I ever thought my body could produce, but otherwise not that bad after a couple of MISERABLE days. I did have to attend depositions on a couple of those miserable days, and I parked myself at the end of the conference table as far away from the other attorneys as possible, had on hand a box of kleenex and my hand sanitizer spray. If I coughed, I would do so into my upper arm and then even use my hand sanitizer. I figured I’d rather be classified as OCD regarding that stuff than inconsiderate.

    As much as I would have rather sent someone else to attend the depositions, the case is very complex, I substituted in for my clients recently and I’m still trying to identify who each of the “players” are and often times until I’m at a deposition I don’t really know their role in the grand scheme of things, so asking someone to cover for me without being able to provide any direction as to what questions may need to be asked was just too obscure.

  4. I do transactional work and can telecommute whenever I need to, within reason. This season it would make sense to raise that as an option for employees who are ill and shouldn’t be in the office.

  5. Biglaw refugee :

    At my former Biglaw firm, some limited working from home while sick was allowed, although NOT working really wasn’t, no matter how sick, thanks to deadlines and billable hours.

    Honestly, I’ve always had trouble working from home due to the distraction factor. And when I’m sick (luckily rarely), the couch is just too tempting. I follow the “facetime” and “sleep in shifts” rule, but I rarely get much actually accomplished. Most of the time I had to just quarantine myself in my office and nap facedown on my desk as needed.

    Luckily I now have a job that actually lets me take sick leave, as well as vacation, and I’m convinced I’m a more productive, focused worker because of it.

  6. Andromeda :

    FWIW, the colored mucus/fever over 100 things are guidelines in my daughter’s school handbook for when she’s supposed to stay home.

  7. Liz (Europe) :

    Naproxen seems to give me a concentration edge as well as have painkilling properties, at least for the first hour or two. Flushing nasal cavities helps, as well as gargling and sucking antiseptics and lakritz, and endulging my body in whatever food it craves.

    For viruses, I seem to have an immune response not unlike a coma. It takes me down literally off my feet no matter where I am, I’ll virtually almost crawl into bed and then I’ll sleep for 16 and more hours straight… Basically I’ll wake up only when my bladder is about to explode, visit the toilet, drink a lot of water or juice, change into dry clothing and be sleepy again, and then sleep for another 16 hours, or however long it takes. My fever usually runs well over 40 degrees centigrade by that point (for comparison, 42 is the max they put on thermometres, cuz more than that damages cells) and as soon as I wake up from this “coma”, in about two days, I’m good to go and do pretty much anything. Even if you had a crane to get me out of bed during this “coma”, I couldn’t focus to read anything, everything just doubles before my eyes and I doze off anyway. It’s happened to me during a semestre-end exam once and I doped up on several cans of energy drink and painkillers but still didn’t write anything down, I just turned in empty sheets after the (to get the re-try) mandatory half hour, nearly falling asleep even in that time. Couldn’t focus to even read the questions… Only time I’ve tried doing anything being that sick.

    For bacteria… Well, I can function, even if my head feels like it’s exploding. Hah, it just lingers, and lingers, and lingers for weeks, even if everybody else’s immune systems don’t let them get ill. Antibiotics don’t even help, it’s a drama. Flushing nasal cavities with baking soda and salts seems to help some, as does sucking on lakritz candy and trachitol (antiseptic/lidocaine/aluin mixture) and gargling other antiseptics…
    Also, I always get super-hungry, usually for salty, proteinish stuff and for fruits. I go with whatever my body asks in those cases, who am I to argue with it?

    • Yes, Liz, I’m like you when, when I’m SICK SICK, I am too week to read a Blackberry, talk on the phone, or do anything for 7-10 days. I lose 10-15 lbs. It happens once a decade, but it is FER-OSH.

  8. A woman in my office teaches all new workers this trick – dissolve advil and a honey lemon cough drop in hot tea and drink quickly and immediately. Repeat as necessary. It really helps!!

  9. Actually, I find that getting an adequate amount of sleep every night goes a long way in ensuring you stay healthy to begin with. I know some people are saying that’s just impossible, but if you’re life is so busy you can’t get enough sleep, you just have to cut back somewhere.

  10. Skype is a lifesaver for working from home! It is a bummer to have to actually get dressed (or at least put a real shirt on) but the upside is that your colleagues can see you’re really working and also really sick.

  11. If I am really sick (not too often), I am not fit to drive, or think clearly. Once I tried to go to court because it was “impossible” to reschedule, but I started vomiting in the car and I decided that I was not really THAT important, and that even the judge would not want to see me in that condition. It is annoying to cancel things, but no one really wants your illness.

  12. – Take Vitamin C. No matter where you are, when you start to get that telltale tickle in the back of your throat, take Vitamin C. Orange juice from the deli or vending machine will do fine, but we like Emergen-C. (Less calories.)

    I’m pretty sure you mean FEWER calories. Just FYI.

    • Anonymous :

      You must have missed the string of posts a few weeks back in which readers were annoyed by commenters who had nothing better to contribute than a grammar correction. Just FYI.

  13. I’m a big fan of gargling with salt water whenever you feel that yucky sick tickle in your throat. Hubby came down with swine flu and I gargled every morning and evening and snorked salt water up my nose. (Sorry if TMI.) I didn’t get it. I read that the flu takes 3 days to incubate. The gargling and snorking kills the virus before it can take hold.

    • Flushing out your sinuses is actually a great way to make sure you don’t get sick. You can wash your hands as much as you want, but with people sneezing and coughing, it’s going to get in your nose/mouth too. I think it’s also advisable after coming off a plane or from a large, enclosed space with a lot of people.

      • Use a neti pot. Use it every day, in the AM. Regard it on the same level as flossing: preventative maintenance. Ignore the “oh, pouring water through your sinuses, how gross!” crowd. Taunt them when they are sick and you are not. Take it with you when you travel (the bonus: endless interesting conversations with security folks on how thousands of years and billions of people … in India … can’t be totally wrong?). You can buy them online – the metal ones with the long-ish handle and the tapered nose end are best – though you can also purchase at places like Whole Foods. But these are prone to breakage (pottery) and don’t have tapered nose-ends. And yes you can use regular sea salt, no need to buy neti pot salt (but make sure it’s sea salt, not Morton’s iodized!).

        • Second the jala neti recommendation. And it’s not just for yogis and new-age-sters. I know several ENT docs who have been shilling their own version of the neti pot as an alternative to sinus surgery.

          • The Neil-Med Sinus rinse system (you can google it, but it is widely available at Walgreens) is a much more convenient alternative to a Neti pot. It is a squeeze bottle (allowing you to control the flow rate and pressure) with a nozzle at the top (allowing you to hold your head vertical rather than at an angle) that draws the liquid from the bottom (keeping you from snorting air). Can’t say enough good things about it.

    • YES. I use a Neti Pot daily and it helps so much with preventing sickness.

  14. I got sick a few weeks ago and I braved it on the first day and went to work. I had 100+ temp. My boss acted as if I was fine, the company doctor told me take antibiotics (but didnt mention that I should probably go home).
    I took sick leave the next 3 days (but worked from home).
    I hoped a little that my boss would catch the nasty flu I had.

  15. I’m pregnant and until I got the (swine) flu shot, was really worried about getting sick…I work in an open floor plan, big company, where no one takes sick days – it is just asking for trouble.

    But luckily this pregnancy has me constantly thirsty – I think the huge amounts of water I was flushing through my system really worked to keep me sick when everyone around me was dropping like flies (including my husband!)

    I also eat lots of fruits and veggies (especially ones with vitamin C) and exercise regularly. Of course now that I have said this, I am sure to be ill tomorrow!

    Slightly jealous of Liz – sounds like the best possible way to suffer through a sickness – sleeping the entire time! :)

  16. I was sick a lot last winter, and began taking about 1000 mg. of Vitamin C daily to boost my immune system. It has helped a lot. When I start to feel lousy, I take three Vitamin C with my meals (better absorption and easier on the stomach) and ibuprofen or naproxin every 4-6 hours. Most importantly, though, I sleep as much as I can.

  17. I think that snot-color thing might be a myth, although I’ve gauged sickness in the past with it. I’ve only been stricken with the actual real flu virus once, and I hope to never get it again. Only time I was sicker, was when I was in the hospital with pneumonia as a child.

    I do have a flu/cold remedy that I’ve heard is a sure thing, but never had the nerve to try:
    Put on flannel pjs and get about four or five blankets on you.
    Start the tea kettle, brew tea, add lemon, and a shot of whiskey.
    Drink about, oh, 7 or eight of those Hot Toddy’s whilst wrapped in layers of blankets.
    You should be fine the next day.

    A neighbor swears by this, so I’m hoping one of y’all gets to try it before me!

  18. I work in a federal-level court, and – despite all the warnings about H1N1 they’re always sending around – folks’ requests about working from home when sick have been met with an, “Um, no.”

    I have a couple medical conditions which make it difficult for me to accrue a lot of sick time, so if I have a contagious illness I still come into the office unless I’m ill to the point of being unable to function. I just stay in my office and douse myself in hand sanitizer.

    Yeah, I’m sure some people probably would say it’s selfish, but I’m not about to lose my job or be unable to pay my bills because I got sick. If they have an issue with me coming in they can help call for telecommuting options.

    • This kind of thing is why it seems really harsh to label the associate the OP mentioned as “selfish” based on his coming to work sick. He might have been, I suppose, though most people don’t really view working while sick as in their own interests, or he might have been working under people who were not in the least bit understanding about this kind of thing. That managing partner should look at his own firm culture first.

      • Ditto, ditto, ditto. The managing partner himself is RESPONSIBLE for that firm culture in which (1) you always come into work for many, many hours a day, always, (2) face time is a big deal (see #1), and (3) people who actually stay home when they’re sick are derided as pussies by the rest of the office.

        I found that a good antidote to that attitude was to come into work on the first day of being sick (I realize that that is when you are contagious), let people see you coughing in the halls, and then go home at noon or so. Then you were OK to stay home the next day since people had actually seen you being sick. Luckily my firm now does not stress face time, plus I work from home one day a week anyway, so it is no biggie to stay home when I am sick.

    • Absolutely. I’m not defending the practice of showing up at the office with a contagious illness, but if it were just as simple as some suggest, many of us would be leading far different lives (or lifestyles). The unfortunate reality, for biglaw associates, is that there is often no excuse. Our schedules are deadline-driven, client-driven, court-driven, and dictated by those higher up on the food chain. Those always trump family/social/other commitments, even when “other” includes something like H1N1.

  19. I just took my first sick day in 6 years yesterday (the first due to me being sick – I have twin toddlers and have been home with them). I had a nasty stomach flu, and I thought it the most courteous option to not expose my colleagues. I did a few telephone conferences from home, but overall my office was very understanding.

    I think there is generally a lot of pressure to come to work despite being sick, and I have done so with colds on numerous occasions. I stay in my office and use lots of hand sanitizer. I have also commuted to work in blizzard conditions. Sometimes, you really just HAVE to be there. That said, I would not come in with a suspected flu, particularly this season.

  20. I agree with Anon, there is also a lot of pressure at my work to come to work despite being sick. But I have forced myself to stay at home yesterday and today since I have bad cold and flu especially with the H1N1 going around. The more I rest now, the quicker I will be to being well.

  21. I agree there is a lot of pressure to come to work even when sick. Believe me, I don’t want to get anyone sick and I rely heavily on hand sanitizer and my elbow but for younger workers there is a stigma about calling in sick. People think you’re playing hooky. Most of my bosses are like “yeah well last week I was sick and so were my two kids.” As a single twenty-something you can’t compete with two sick kids.

    There are some days when I just can’t come in (vomiting, etc.) in which case I tell my assistant to let EVERYONE who comes anywhere near my office that I’m home throwing up and they should email me. But on days when I’ve got a bad cold and I can’t tell how contagious it is or how bad it’s going to get, I usually go pay a visit to one of my germaphobe bosses who almost always tells me to pack stuff up and take it home if he hears the slightest sniffle. Then I tell everyone he sent me home. In either case I try to send a ton of emails when I’m home so word gets around that I’m on my computer.

    I definitely agree with the sleeping in shifts thing when you’re really down for the count. When you’re really sick it’s impossible to stay in front of the computer from 9-5 but laying down for a few hours off and on will keep you fairly responsive while also making sure you get some rest.

  22. One thing that people haven’t really mentioned in the swine flu debate is temp workers. I am currently a temp. If I am out, I don’t get paid. Consequently, I feel absolutely zero remorse in coming in and infecting any fully-employed colleagues. My company recently put out an exhaustive H1N1 prevention memo, but no mention of what temps should do. We are invisible germ incubators, and, guess what? We don’t care if we infect you.

    BTW, I took this attitude right after I saw a ton of confidential board materials in which management touted how much they were saving by hiring consultants and temps. Yep.

    • Anonymous :

      My approach is somewhat different. I got a seasonal flu shot as well as an H1N1 shot and I’m being very proactive about drinking even more water than usual, keeping up with my vitamins, hand sanitizer, etc. If I get really sick, I’ll stay home – so I’m doing everything I can to avoid getting really sick. I don’t want to miss days of pay but I’d feel worse about getting people sick unnecessarily (particularly my pregnant coworker).

    • Lots of people don’t get paid if they don’t come to work. My hairdresser doesn’t, and she still cancelled an appointment with me when she got the flu earlier this year.

      I’m sure there are plenty of people at your job who are salaried but have no say in who gets hired or how that person gets paid. How does infecting those people with your flu affect the decisions of the management?

      • I appreciate the sentiment (really! I’ve been there!), but as a preggers lady, I’m seeing the costs and benefits a little differently. Yes, hours and work are important, but so is the health of my baby, and management choices aren’t really my (or my babys’) fault. A high fever can equal miscarriage.

  23. Anon(29),
    I’ve got a lot of friends doing temp work right now so I do sympathize with your situation but a lot of the people you’re working with had no say in the company hiring temps to save money. That attitude affects a lot more than the bigwigs who made that decision and it’s disheartening to hear you would take it out on “any fully-employed colleagues.” It’s not their fault you’re doing temp work; why should they be penalized?

  24. Two thoughts and an experience:

    1) This season I have been sick less than any one I can remember in the past. I think that public awareness (including my own) has led to a lot of precautions that have cut down on illness. I hope it continues to future years.

    2) Part of the problem with calling out while sick is that SO many people use “working from home” as a euphemism for “not working today” when they’re not sick. It really is hard to distinguish between the two.

    Experience: When I first started practicing law – and I mean FIRST started, since it was only 1.5 months into my job and I wasn’t even admitted yet – I was assigned to a massive case. Mind you, this case had been going on for years, and 1.5 months after I joined the firm as a first-year, it went to arbitration. We’re talking war rooms, 24 hour billable days: the usual “game day” insanity that is often expected when there are billions of dollars on the line. I had never worked on the case before, had no meaningful experience in either the relevant facts or law, and was basically doing support, grunt work to help the team (24 hours a day). A temp could easily have done my job. About 3 weeks into the 5 week arbitration, I got really ill (102 degree temps, etc). I could barely walk, and called in to explain the situation and why I needed to stay home. The partner had a paralegal inform me that I’d better show up, regardless of my condition, and when I did show up looking like death, actually said “don’t come near me” and sent me to a room down the hall to work. After about 45 minutes, he felt guilty, and sent another paralegal to inform me that I should leave immediately. I don’t work there anymore.

    • Almost forgot another one – One time I got kidney stones on a Sunday. I had been working at home that Sunday on a project for the same partner referenced above, when they came on. (I didn’t know it was kidney stones at the time). I ended up having to go to the hospital in an ambulance. I called the partner FROM the ambulance to tell him what was going on, and gave him the info he needed to complete the project or have someone else do it. Again, it was a very simple project. The partner actually called me THREE times WHILE I was in the ER, and subsequently used my illness as an excuse to gain an advantage in the arbitration.

  25. i eat a ton of oranges and clementines when I’m sick, plus take a lot of vitamin C, and I think it helps me get over it quicker even if it doesn’t necessarily lessen the severity of my symptoms. I’ve also taken ziacam (the dissolving tablets, not the “you’ll lose your sense of smell nasal swabs”) and I think sometimes it actually does help, but that could be entirely placebo effect.

  26. Anne Vohl :

    Certainly do not go to work sick during this flu epidemic. But also beware of working at home when sick. One time I was so proud of myself working up a very intricate contract while home with a fever for a week. Years later (when agreement brolee down) I had occasion to re-visit the document and said to myself – could I have done this? So you may think you are working just great, but really you are not.

  27. I know a lot of people in your situation, but I wholeheartedly agree. Ever heard of thing called karma?

  28. Not only does my firm not encourage employees to take sick leave if we think we’re contagious, we don’t actually get sick leave (we have general PTO, and it’s not generous). So when I’m sick, I can either stay home, lose a vacation day, and piss off my boss, or go to work. Wish everyone had the options being discussed.

  29. My favorite remedy is those Suda-Care Shower Soothers – little discs that turn your shower into an aromatherapy sauna.

    Now, I have a tangential question – when you return from being sick, how do you deal with your co-workers? I’ve had some express legitimate concern, and others who are just plain nosy/rude and ask what was wrong, whether you went to the doctor, are you contagious, etc. And we all know that you can’t always tell people you have to deal with every day exactly what you REALLY think (i.e., none of your gd business). I usually answer with, “thank you for asking, I’m fine”…but I feel like there’s probably a better way to respond.

  30. I second the Nasonex recommendation. Don’t use it too long, as it can develop dependency, but I have found nothing that cleans out the sinuses faster, better, or longer. I seem to be susceptible to sinus infections, so it’s a godsend for me. (btw, I use a generic–check the active ingredients. Odds are your pharmacy carries its own brand.)

  31. A few years ago, when I worked for a bank, got the flu–the one that was killing babies and old people. I was out the week of christmas to new year’s, which was purely coincidental, I swear. When I came back I was still coughing pretty badly.

    I was also docked pay, because the company had a policy that no absences were accepted the day before or after xmas.

  32. Hello This is a great help. . . if you work in an office. I however work as a motorcycle mechanic in a poorly heated garage. How can i beat this nasty cold i have? I am already fully covered; beanie, thick hooded sweatshirt-like-jacket, fingerless winter gloves (i need my fingers lol), bib overalls, and boots. but i am either too cold or sweating, Any tips of what i can drink or eat that is garage friendly?
    Thanks in advance,

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