I have a confession to make. We're in a time where tolerance and empathy are more needed than ever. I try to role model open-mindedness and inclusion for my daughter. I have little tolerance for haters.

And yet, I have sick-shamed.

Back in my days of corporate life, I'd lose it when someone showed up sneezing and hacking all over the place, offering a cold and flu cloudburst to anyone unlucky enough to be in spray radius. I'd tell them to go home. I'd remind them I left my sneeze shield at the Ruby Tuesday's salad bar. I'd wash my hands if I was anywhere near them.

Ironically, a few times, I somehow convinced myself that it was OK for me to show up with that annoying hacking cough that won't go away. That's not really being sick and this was a really important meeting, after all.

And I got what I deserved. I was sick shamed.

So I've been on both ends and I can tell you, it's very much a thing.

In fact, the Wall Street Journal just reported on the growing incidence of fed-up office workers aggressively coaxing sick employees to leave, secretly scrubbing down co-workers desks, even following peers around the germy biodomes of their offices with cans of disinfectant.

But lest you shame the shamers, here's an astounding fact about the growing problem of what's called presenteeism; people showing up to work sick.

Research shows absenteeism costs employers $150 billion a year, but presenteeism costs $1,500 billion a year, or, 10...times...more.

I did some research too, by reaching out to a bunch of office workers. They all said this: "If you're sick, stay the hell home."

I realize people might not feel they can afford to miss work. I get that and I don't want to be callous to hardship cases. I'm just asking that sick employees think of the hardships they create for others by showing up to work sick.

And remote work is exploding, so you don't have to remorse work. Relatedly, if you worry more about getting boss-shamed than sick-shamed, it's time to set some ground rules with your boss. Give your boss a plan for how you can still get your work done from home (if you're feeling well enough to work). If they want you at work no matter how sick you are, it's time to reevaluate that job.

If you're a boss and you're shaming employees to show up anyway, shame on you. There's a better way. Do these three things to keep employees from coming in to martyr their way through the weekly budget meeting:

1. If they're sick, show them empathy and the exit. 

Encourage them to go home and get better and have a plan to cover their work if they're truly working on something urgent. But proceed carefully.

Whenever I encountered a sick employee, I was sure to inquire about their overall well-being first. There may be something serious going on behind the scenes you'll want to be sensitive too. If you've built a foundation of trust with them, they might offer more background on what's going on.

Either way, gently let them know you want them to feel better and that you need them at their best--and that being at work won't help them get there.

2. Role-model staying home when you're sick.

Communicate why you're staying home then stop communicating until you're better. Continuing to play command and control from your couch signals that you don't value the time it takes to get better, so they won't value it either.

3. Create a culture of caring.

If you have a cultural foundation of caring, your employees would never even think of coming in sick, out of concern for their coworkers. Granted, it's a "longer burn" preventative move, but it can work.

One particularly devilish company at which I keynoted puts "get-well racks" up in their hallways during cold and flu season, stuffed with get-well cards, envelopes, and even stamps. It encourages employees to send their peers a friendly get-better card and sends a not-so-subtle message to not even think about coming in if you're sick.

There's no shame if you're sick and stay home, so why get shamed at work? Leaders, help it along by deploying an ounce of prevention.

Published on: Jan 27, 2019
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