Should I Go to Work with the Flu?

by Staff - Original publish date: January 15, 2013

The flu has arrived, delivering its gifts of body aches, fevers, and nausea earlier and more generously than usual. 

As of the first week in January, 47 states were reporting widespread incidence of flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New York state and the city of Boston, which has recorded 10 times as many cases of flu this year as at this point last season, have both declared public health emergencies in the face of the epidemic. States in the southeast and Midwest have reported particularly high flu activity.

For employees, a bout of the flu means making an important decision: To work or not to work? Battling through your symptoms to get your work done might show your dedication to the job. In fact, 80 percent of people admit to going to work sick, according to a survey done this fall by office supply chain Staples. 

Employees may be reluctant to use a sick day, or may not even have that option; the United States does not legally require employers to offer paid sick leave, and about one-quarter of workers do not get sick days, according to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Pushing yourself to work through illness, however, also gives you the chance to infect colleagues, potentially dragging down your employer's productivity more than if you'd just stayed in bed. 

In an average year, 111 million workdays are lost to the flu, according to CDC estimates. The value of these sick days and the lost productivity they cause totals an average of $7 billion per year. Direct medical costs add another $10.4 billion to the tab. 

Parents of sick children could incur medical expenses between $300 and $4,000, depending on geography and the severity of the illness, according to a CDC study. These parents miss between 11 and 73 hours of work, the study said. 

So what can employees do to help?

Stay home if you are sick, advises, oh, just about everyone. Pushing yourself could slow your own recovery and spread the infection. And give yourself some time, even if you feel like you could drag yourself to your desk; you may remain infectious for as long as five to seven days after your symptoms abate. 

When you are at work (only when healthy, of course) fight off potential germs with frequent hand-washing, desk-cleaning and hand-sanitizing. 

If you haven't yet been sick, it is not too late to get a flu vaccine, the CDC advises. Even if you've had a flu-like illness and recovered, the vaccine can still help protect against relapse or new infection with a different strain of the disease. It takes about two weeks after the vaccine for the body to develop the antibodies necessary to ward off the flu.