Should an ailing employee call in sick or tough it out?
Ruth Tuttle, principal of Broad Street Elementary School in Nashua, sometimes refers to her workplace as a “germ factory.”
“More stuff gets passed to adults,” Tuttle said, making reference to the sneezes, coughs and unwashed small hands that frequently transmit colds, flu and other bugs to teachers and other school staff.
But when the principal or a teacher catches a bug, neither is likely to stay home, in spite of common knowledge to the contrary.
“If we are here, we are infecting each other,” said Tuttle, who during her 38 years with the school district has accumulated 165 unused sick days. “If I give some advice, I probably should take it, too.”
According to a recent survey conducted for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, 64 percent of workers said their employer encourages them to stay home when they have the flu or other illness, while almost half said they feel guilty about missing work because they are ill. In addition, close to half of those queried said they had been annoyed by a colleague who showed up with the flu, and about a third said they had caught the flu from a co-worker.
But what comes first, the sick day or the illness? Some observers said business culture promotes an attitude of toughing it out: If you show up at the office hacking and sneezing, you’re making a statement about your dedication to the job.
But others said even when employers encourage taking sick days, they send a mixed message: Stay home if you’re sick, but pay the price when you come back and have to catch up on what you’ve missed.
The Nashua School District does not have a written policy about staying home with a cold or the flu, said Gail Tobbe, the human resources administrator. But Tuttle and her colleagues said they depend on input from the school nurse to help them decide when to take a sick day.
“Yesterday, I told one of the teachers to go home,” Tuttle said. “She said, ‘I thought I could make it through the day.’”
Charlie Katsohis, principal of Ledge Street Elementary School, said teachers encourage children to bring tissues to school, to wash their hands before eating, and to cover coughs and sneezes. But children and their teachers still catch colds, and teachers often feel pressured to show up, despite their illnesses.
“If I miss a day of work, I know the following day I will have much more work to do,” said Katsohis. “It’s even more so for the teachers. They have a set curriculum that takes 160 days to teach correctly. If they miss too many days, it’s a penalty on the students.”
At Southern New Hampshire Medical Center in Nashua, employees who stay home with the flu or a cold for three days or more must report to the employee health department before returning to work, said hospital spokeswoman Judith Bennett.
But the hospital has no guidelines to help employees decide when to stay home.
“For those not in the front line, there’s no rule, but co-workers will shun you if they think you’re contagious,” Bennett said.
BAE Systems, one of the area’s largest employers with more than 4,000 employees in southern New Hampshire, likewise has no written policy about taking sick time. But human resources director Bob Paul said the company discourages employees from showing up sick.
“We have a generous leave policy, sick benefits, up to six months disability,” said Paul. “There’s no reason to come in. Fortunately, because we’re a large firm, many employees, it’s easier to cover a key employee.”
But BAE also employs a company physician and has occupational nurses available for consultation. Each of the company’s four work sites in Greater Nashua has a medical department.
“We want people to be healthy,” said Paul, adding that he hasn’t had a cold in two years or taken a sick day in the last 10 years.
But in a company as large as BAE, Paul continued, it’s likely that some employees are coming to work when they are sick.
“We prefer people not infect their co-workers. But with 4,500 people, it’s probably happening somewhere and I don’t know about it,” he said.
Thomas Crum, manager of Chick-fil-A, a fast-food restaurant at the Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, said hand-washing and hand sanitation are reinforced daily.
“If you feel sick, we need to talk,” the manager said he tells his employees.
It wasn’t that way when Crum worked for a politician. Nor was he encouraged to stay home if he came down with a cold or flu when he was in school.
“It was ‘go to class unless you’re on your deathbed,’” he said.
Peg Donnelly, a marketing executive in a Boston investment firm, was having lunch at the mall with her 18-month-old daughter, Caroline, and her parents, Phil and Pat Horgan. Donnelly, who is out on maternity leave, said more than once she has urged an ill colleague to go home.
“It’s so easy to work from home,” Donnelly said. “If you’re sick, work from home!”
But her father, a retired, self-employed electrical contractor, said during his working years in Massachusetts, he never took a sick day.
“You just didn’t take time off,” he said.
– HATTIE BERNSTEIN