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National Sickie Day: When should you actually call in sick to work?

Dr Tom Micklewright photo

Created: 1 February, 2019

Updated: 1 February, 2019

The average number of sickness absence days taken by workers in the UK fell to the lowest rate on record in 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Where employees once took an average of 7.2 sick days off on average (in 1993, at least), as of 2017, they are now taking only 4.1 – and absence from sickness has fallen steadily since 1999, once again according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Naturally, there are two ways of looking at this – a glass half full, or a glass half empty. Are British workers taking less sick days because they’re in better health than they have ever been? Potentially, yes. Additional ONS statistics reveal that between men and women across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there has been average increase of 3 years in life expectancy, and 2.2% more of our lives spent in good health, between 2000-02 and 2009-11.

Alternatively, we have seen a consistent rise in ‘presenteeism’ – that is, people still coming into work when they are visibly ill. A survey carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 88% of participants had observed presenteeism in their workplaces. This is compared to 72% in 2016, and 26% in 2010. Presenteeism is undoubtedly on the rise, and the CIPD write “only a minority of organisations are taking steps to challenge these unhealthy workplace practices”.




When should we take a sick day?

Workplace policies and peer pressure aside, when are we at our most infectious and which symptoms are truly not safe for work? To mark National Sickie Day, the first Monday in February which “traditionally [sees] the highest number of workers calling in sick”, we wanted to answer these questions, once and for all.

Starting with the first question of when are we at our most infectious, and how long are we infectious for, unsurprisingly, the answer varies from infection to infection.


Cannot usually be spread to others

Shingles and tonsillitis are two common conditions which are not typically contagious. “Typically” is the operative word, here. Tonsillitis infections caused by streptococcus are highly contagious, and there have been cases of shingles being transmitted through contact. Those who have not had chickenpox in the past need to be particularly wary of shingles sufferers – as chickenpox and shingles are caused by the same virus, it is possible to catch chickenpox from someone with shingles, and as you will read below, chickenpox is particularly dangerous in adulthood.

Glandular fever, on the other hand, can only be spread through direct contact with saliva – hence why it is colloquially referred to as “the kissing disease”. With any one of these conditions, and their associated symptoms, there is usually no reason not to go into work or school unless you feel physically incapable of doing so.


Can be spread to others before symptoms are visible

Flu and the common cold begin being infectious before symptoms actually appear, and remain as infectious until the symptoms disappear. This isn’t tremendously useful in terms of deciding whether to go into work, as you can’t predict when you are or aren’t infected, but it goes to show that just because the symptoms have begun in earnest, that does not mean you are no longer infectious, or even that you are less infectious.

In a similar vein, mumps is at its most infectious a few days before your glands swell.


Can be spread to others while symptoms are visible

Bronchitis is usually caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold or flu, and as such, you are infectious as long as you are experiencing cold or flu-like symptoms. Measles is similar, being most infectious after the first symptoms appear (usually a high temperature, red eyes and cold-like symptoms), long before the classic measles rash develops.


Conjunctivitis is a common condition with multiple different causes, some of which are contagious – viral or bacterial conjunctivitis, for instance – and some of which are not – allergic or irritant conjunctivitis, as you might expect. No matter how you have contracted conjunctivitis, we recommend working on the assumption that you have infectious conjunctivitis, and take the necessary precautions – washing your hands regularly, washing and not sharing both pillows and face cloths, avoiding wearing contact lenses, and most importantly of all, not rubbing your eyes.


Impetigo is a highly contagious skin condition that can easily spread to other parts of your body once contracted, or to other people until it stops being contagious. Impetigo only stops being contagious 48 hours after starting the course of medicine prescribed by your GP, or once the sores, blisters and patches have dried out and crusted over.


Stay off school or work with these symptoms

Rubella or German measles is one somewhat common condition that we recommend staying off work with. Further, if you contract rubella you should avoid contact with pregnant women altogether if possible. Both rules apply for six days after the rash first develops. The MMR vaccine should give you lifelong protection from rubella, as well as mumps and measles however, so long as you received both doses.

Chickenpox is another condition that we recommend steering clear from school or work with. Though many people will have had (or think they had) chickenpox during childhood, it is better to exercise caution – as the symptoms of chickenpox are much more severe in adults than children.


Which symptoms are not safe for work?

As for general rules of which symptoms are not safe work, this will vary from industry to industry – roles involving manual labour and heavy machinery have completely different risks associated with them to desk-based roles. That said, there are four common symptoms that generally mean you should stay home from work, or indeed school.

1. Fever
Temperatures of 100.4° Fahrenheit or 38° Centigrade are clear indicators of fever, which itself is an indication of infection or antibodies actively fighting against an encroaching infection. The general rule of thumb with children is that they need to be fever-free for 24 hours before going back into school – this is just as applicable to adults going into work, we would argue.

2. Vomiting and/or diarrhoea
Symptoms that need no explanation, we would hope. It is both unpleasant for you and unproductive for your wider workplace to go into work with these symptoms, bed rest and steady hydration are your best port of call instead. Much like the fever advice above, you should be clear of symptoms for 48 hours (guidance usually reserved for schools, but just as applicable here) before returning to work.

3. Chronic pain
This is true for chronic pain of virtually any form. The pain itself aside, you will struggle to concentrate in the same way while you are experiencing it, so going to work simply isn’t an option. Monitor the development of your pain closely, paying particular attention to instances of it worsening, or indeed improving, and react accordingly.

4. Uncontrollable coughing
Something we have all been on both sides of – experiencing uncontrollable coughing fits ourselves, and being around people that have had them too. It is easier for both parties if you elect to stay at home. You can work remotely if you feel up to it, but to avoid spreading the infection, and distracting the rest of your office unnecessarily, you should avoid going into work.

Topics: Expert health advice, Women's health, Men's health