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Working despite illness: risks for employees, teams and companies (symbolic image)

Photo: dra_schwartz / Getty Images

It's autumn and with it cold-flu-corona season. People don't just sniffle at home, but also at work. Because just because you're sick doesn't mean you can't open your laptop. You don't want to leave anyone hanging. And working from home is always possible. Get out of bed in case of emergency.

Stop! Stop! If you are sick, you should go home and recover! Anything else is bad for your own health and for the company. However, young employees in particular ignore all risks and go about their jobs even though they have symptoms. This must finally come to an end.

I'm not just saying this because there's data to back up this trend and show that working from home is actually amplifying it. I also say this from years of experience: I didn't cancel business trips despite having a middle ear infection and fever, delayed bronchitis, even answered e-mails from bed, even though I was incredibly exhausted. My clients and employers didn't thank me for that, and my health certainly didn't thank me. It often took me a long time to get back to full health. I was a bad role model for my team and regret that I didn't just drink tea and then go to sleep.

I had hoped that the pandemic would make us rethink: Because we realized that we were not only endangering ourselves when we went to work sick, but also our colleagues. But many seem to have forgotten this insight: In a survey by the health insurance company Pronova BKK last autumn, almost one in ten people stated that they would go to work even if they had a corona infection with a mild course. A further 17 percent worked from home in such a case of illness.

Unhealthy presenteeism

Even beyond Corona, presenteeism, i.e. being present at work despite acute illness, is a widespread problem: According to a survey conducted by Techniker Krankenkasse in 2022, just over a quarter of employees say they often or very often work sick. According to the data, only 16.5 percent never do so.

By the way, when I write about illness here, I mean acute illnesses. Of course, there are millions of people who go to work every day with chronic ailments, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and back pain. It is also important for them to listen to their bodies: When can I work regularly and when not?

According to the TK survey, women and young employees in particular tend to drag themselves to work sick, but also people who are employed on a fixed-term basis or have a lot of personnel responsibility. Of older employees aged 60 and over, 37.5 percent say they never go to work sick. Among young employees up to the age of 29, only about 12 percent say so. So much for the absurd accusation that Gen Z is lazy and undisciplined at work.

Not even a doctor's sick note is enough for young people to recover. Instead, they are more likely than older people to turn to painkillers in order to continue doing their job. Even severe symptoms such as pain, chills or fever are only a reason for a third of employees up to the age of 29 to never work. In the case of emotional exhaustion, which can be a symptom of impending burnout, more than half of young professionals go to work anyway.

The main reasons for presenteeism? That there is no replacement, that you are not contagious, that you don't want to be a burden to your colleagues, that there are urgent appointments - or that you simply like going to work. According to a 2019 survey by the Health and Work Initiative, supported by various health and accident insurance companies, fear of losing one's job or experiences of discrimination can also lead to people working sick.

One risk is clear: you can infect others. In the end, the whole department is infected – and the problem is even bigger. This is probably one of the reasons why people who work exclusively on site are more likely to stay at home when they are on official sick leave. Those who regularly work from home are more likely to continue working despite health problems. 38 percent of those surveyed cite feelings of guilt as the reason.

For the self-employed and freelancers, there is another hurdle: If you don't work, you don't earn any money. There is no statutory entitlement to sick pay, as is usually the case with employees. However, it is possible to take out extra protection, for example through a higher contribution rate in the statutory health insurance scheme or through private daily sickness allowance insurance. Those who can build up reserves cushion the financial risk in the event of illness. After all, ignoring health risks and continuing to work on your own is not a good idea.

Bad for employees and employers alike

If you don't recover properly, you could spread an illness. If you have complaints, you may be limited in your own performance and may be more likely to make mistakes. This can also be expensive for companies and is therefore not in the interest of employers.

Therefore, if you are sick, you should stay at home – without opening your laptop and without checking your work e-mails on your smartphone in bed.

However, it is also clear that reality does not always make this easy for you: Especially those who are precariously employed, do not have a fixed contract or are paid hourly, may feel more pressure to show up at work under all circumstances. If you're new to the job, you want to prove yourself, to be a good part of the team. If you love your work, you always want to give it your all.

But you don't have to prove yourself by dragging yourself to the company sick. Ensuring sufficient staffing levels and redistributing work fairly is the task of employers, not individual employees. And no job in the world is worth risking your health – even if you really enjoy doing it.