We have all been there: we wake up with a stuffy nose, sore throat or a cough, and we know there is a busy work day ahead. Staying home would be great, but we’re not sure if we are really “sick enough” to justify calling in. So how do we decide when taking a sick day is the right choice? Here are some tips that might help the next time you find yourself under the weather.
It is easy to think to yourself, “If you are sick, then stay home!” But there are a number of factors that influence the decision to miss work. Many veterinary professionals work in close-knit, high-pressure environments where one person plays a big role in how the day goes for everyone. This can lead to concern about letting coworkers, clients and patients down by staying home. Some individuals have jobs that include daily tasks other employees may not know how to do, meaning that a sick day leads to a backlog of work waiting when they return. Additionally, someone earning an hourly wage may be under financial pressure to attend work, even when unwell. Any or all of these reasons can cause us to ignore our discomfort, take some over-the-counter medication and hope we feel better as the day goes on.
Cold or Flu?
Identifying the cause, and therefore potential severity, of an illness can help determine whether going to work or staying home is the better decision. During cold and flu season, it often seems like everyone has the sniffles, so knowing how to differentiate between a mild cold and influenza is a good foundation for assessing and making choices about your own health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes influenza as a generally sudden illness accompanied by fever, body aches and weakness1. Influenza may cause a stuffy nose, but chest discomfort and coughing are more common. In contrast, a cold usually comes on gradually with nasal congestion being one of the first symptoms. Colds rarely cause a fever and overall have a milder effect on the body. While a cold can certainly make you feel pretty awful, it is rarely associated with more serious disease and is something you may be able to treat with medication while maintaining a regular work schedule.
Influenza is both highly contagious and potentially dangerous, and anyone who suspects they may have influenza should err on the side of staying home. The CDC recommends anyone with influenza remain away from work for 4–5 days after the onset of symptoms and not return to work until they have been fever-free (temperature has remained under 100 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least 24 hours without the aid of fever-reducing medications. Following these recommendations will allow you to recover to the best of your body’s abilities and protect those around you from becoming infected.
If you have to miss work due to an illness, you may have concerns about lost pay and/or job security. Both of these issues should be addressed in writing in an employee handbook available to everyone at your workplace. It is very important to have consistent protocol regarding illness-related absences to avoid confusion, discrimination or wrongful termination. Whether or not you will receive compensation for work days lost due to being sick will vary based on the state you live in and the policies set by your employer.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are no federal requirements for paid sick leave2. A state may require an employer to provide a specific number of paid sick days, but as of October 2019, only 11 states and Washington D.C. have laws requiring paid sick leave for private companies. You should familiarize yourself with your company’s policies so you are able to plan appropriately regarding missed work.
Your job security should not be threatened by a few days of illness, but unfortunately there are minimal federal regulations regarding unpaid sick leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act ensures job protection and long-term (up to 12 weeks) unpaid sick leave. But this only applies to companies with 50 or more employees, and only employees who have worked at that company for a minimum of 12 months and 1,250 hours are eligible3.
Additionally, anyone requesting FMLA leave may need to provide a doctor’s note certifying they are unfit to work. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, any employer can include a doctor’s note requirement as a part of sick leave/attendance policy, but the policy must be applied uniformly without discrimination4. If your workplace does not provide health insurance, you may want to discuss any doctor’s note requirements in advance of becoming ill in order to establish the company’s responsibility regarding financial compensation for a mandatory physician’s visit.
A Healthy Workplace
The fact remains that, at some point, all of us will find ourselves either going to work with a mild cold or working alongside someone who is ill. The CDC offers the following recommendations to keep the workplace healthier during cold and flu season5:
1. Anyone who is recovering from an illness should minimize contact with others. (In a veterinary setting, this may mean staying “in back” and away from the general public, reducing the risk of spreading the illness to clients.)
2. Individuals who are pregnant, immunocompromised or have underlying respiratory conditions can have complications if they catch a cold. (And we may not know which of our clients fall into these categories.)
3. Someone working through an illness should also avoid close contact with coworkers. If possible, it is helpful if the person who is sick sticks to using a single workstation (computer, desk, phone, etc.) and disinfects it after each shift.
4. All employees should wash hands frequently, and surfaces that many people touch, such as doorknobs, light switches and keyboards, should be regularly disinfected.
5. Disposable tissues and hands-free trash cans should be readily available.
6. Finally, if at any point, someone feels they have become too sick to work, that person should be allowed to leave and either return home or seek medical care.
A Caring Profession
Most of us entered the veterinary field to take care of animals. It is equally important to remember to take care of ourselves and one another. If you need time off to rest and recover from an illness, you should feel comfortable taking it, and everyone in a workplace should support that decision. Remembering to show yourself and others compassion during this cold and flu season will make the workplace healthier in every way. +
1. Cold Versus Flu | CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/coldflu.htm. Accessed October 20, 2019.
2. Sick Leave. U.S. Department of Labor. https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/workhours/sickleave. Accessed October 20, 2019.
3. Employee Leave. National Conference of State Legislatures. http://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/employee-leave.aspx. Accessed October 20, 2019.
4. Doctor’s note Requirements. Society of Human Resource Management. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-qa/pages/doctor’snotes.aspx. Accessed October 20, 2019.
5. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others | CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/index.html. Accessed October 20, 2019.