By Audrey Tan

Depending on where you live, flu season is either here or (sniffing) around the corner. And with a health-threatening pandemic still wreaking havoc as most people return to work in the office, hearing a cough or even a sniff can send alarm bells blaring. 

Thanks to this, sick shaming is becoming a thing in offices. Healthy colleagues who, fearing for their wellbeing, give not so subtle signals of dismay or repugnance towards ill colleagues who insist on coming to work even if they are getting paid leave. 

What Is Sick Shaming?

As you can imagine, the COVID-19 pandemic has made a lot of people more anxious about their health. With fears of permanent symptoms from long COVID or even just worrying about catching and spreading the infection to loved ones, we can understand the fear of a sneezing colleague. Especially in an office space where everyone is packed into rooms without adequate ventilation. People understand more about the rapid spread of germs and just aren’t willing to tolerate sick colleagues. 

This cold and flu season, workers are striking back against stubborn colleagues who show up to work despite being ill. The loathsome tactics used vary, and while some are questionable, like colleagues chasing down sick employees with disinfectant, sarcastically offering cough drops or simply telling them to GO HOME, it’s kinda understandable. 

Working While Sick

But why do sick employees feel the need to go to work instead of calling in sick and spending the day off at home in the first place? Being unwell has always been an incentive for employees to take time off and recuperate at home. 

Nevertheless, the current competitive job market and volatile job security have led to an increase in presenteeism or the practice of being in attendance whilst sick. The majority of employees believe that, unless they are bedridden, their attendance at work is vital to prevent jeopardising their employment. Presenteeism can also be due to other factors, such as hefty workloads, a sense of moral obligation, or simply being married to the job. After all, having a job is vital to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. 

This is why the fear of being ill is a source of concern for most working individuals. According to a recent survey, 62% of employees are stressed or worried about having to take a sick day or skip work when they are ill. Almost a third of those surveyed say they are “very anxious” about the idea of missing work. So during this year’s annual flu season, it is likely that we can expect presenteeism rates to spike, along with sick shaming. 

Work Culture

However, there is another side to the story that we cannot dismiss. Although many employers provide paid sick leave, the “always on” work culture makes it impossible for many employees to take time off even when they’re unwell. Some bosses expect that their emails are always answered immediately or have a strict policy on deadlines. Sometimes, employers pressure their staff to show up for work no matter what. 

Sometimes, due to a toxic workplace environment, workers believe that they have no other choice but to come to work if they want to keep their job. Staff who actually take time off may also be regarded as incapable of dealing with the demands of their careers. 

People must feel secure and encouraged to do so rather than spread illness throughout the office for people to call in sick. Offering paid sick leave while shaming those who take it or making it difficult for employees to leave their jobs even when they’re ill is a significant contributing factor to presenteeism.

According to the US Labor Department data, 77% of private-sector employees have some form of paid sick leave available to them. Despite this, according to a recent study of more than 2,000 adults, 54% of respondents admitted to reporting to work while sick. Many employees stated that their ability to take time off was almost entirely dependent on their rapport with their supervisor or manager. 

So while publicly shaming sick coworkers who report to work despite being unwell may be understandable, it is also vital to consider why they think they are expected to do so in the first place. Some companies and employers proactively encourage and support those who may be contagious to stay away from the office. And, these days with remote working more possible than ever, they should be able to work from home when ill as long as they are not too sick to do so. 

However, the prevalence of sick shaming may suggest that people in positions of authority aren’t doing enough. If managers and supervisors cultivate an environment of understanding and encourage staff to take time off when sick instead of making them feel like they will be in trouble, perhaps more would stay at home.