Should you go to work when you have a cold?

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·5 mins read
Cropped shot of a businesswoman working in her office while suffering from allergies
Although colds, flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses, some of the symptoms can be similar. Photo: Getty

Lockdown measures have eased across much of the UK and more people are heading back to their offices and workplaces after months of working from home. But with cases of coronavirus on the rise, we’re all wary of potential signs and symptoms of infection.

Last year, we might not have thought twice about heading to work with a runny nose, sore throat and aching limbs. Instead, it’s likely we would have dosed up on painkillers and Lemsip and forced ourselves to head to the office, rather than taking a sick day.

Since 1993, the number of sick days taken per worker per year has almost halved from 7.2 days a year to 4.1 in 2017.

But with the symptoms of many common respiratory illnesses similar to that of COVID-19, should we really be heading to work if we’re unwell?

The symptoms of COVID-19

Although colds, flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses, some of the symptoms can be similar. Most people who become infected with coronavirus will have at least one key symptom, such as a high temperature, a new and continuous cough and a loss or change to their sense of smell or taste. A high temperature is unlikely with a cold, but some people may experience chills, aching limbs or a sore throat.

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If you do experience any Covid-related symptoms, you should get yourself a coronavirus test and self-isolate while you wait for the result. However, there is a shortage of tests available in many areas in the UK — with many people having to travel much further, or simply being turned away.

If you can’t get a test, ring your manager and explain the situation. Even if you are unsure whether you have coronavirus symptoms or not, it might be worth staying off work or working from home if you can. Your employer might already have a plan in place for employees who may have symptoms, in which you can work remotely.

Taking a sick day can be worth it

Unlike more serious illnesses which justify recovery time, a bad cold can be a grey area. On the one hand, you might feel rubbish and unable to concentrate on work. On the other, you’re probably still able to turn up to the office, even if you know you won’t get much work done.

Not all businesses will pay their employees when they take sick days, so many people can’t afford to take time off when they need to. It’s also common for people to turn up to work when they’re unwell over fears they will be penalised or seen as lazy. A lack of job security due to the recession triggered by the pandemic may also led to sick employees heading to work.

But even if it’s unlikely that you have coronavirus, sometimes it can be worth taking a sick day if you need to.

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Workers being on the job but not fully functioning because of illness, otherwise known as presenteeism, is a growing problem in the UK. According to a survey by CIPD and Simply Health, 86% of more than 1,000 respondents said they had observed presenteeism in their organisation in 2018, compared with 72% in 2016 and just 26% in 2010.

You may feel the need to power through and come into work when you’re unwell. But if you get into the habit of it, research suggests this can have serious consequences for both you and your employer.

It’s a situation many employees have found themselves in. You’ve woken up feeling rotten, with a pounding head, aching arms and a stuffy nose. You drag yourself to work, but you know you aren’t going to be as productive as you normally are. You’re normally pretty diligent, but you find yourself making silly mistakes because you’re tired.

Having a foggy head can lead us to make mistakes, spend more time on tasks and struggle to make decisions, all of which can be costly for employers. Research from Nottingham Business School in 2017 found that the average UK employee spends almost two weeks a year working while ill. In turn, this cost firms more than £4,000 ($5,058) per person due to low productivity.

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Presenteeism has also been linked to an increase in reported mental health conditions, including stress, anxiety and depression. Yet it is these conditions that are among the main causes of long-term sickness absence. Workers who rarely take time off to recover from an illness also risk developing burnout too.

And when you are ill — even with the common cold — your body needs time to recover before you can get back to life as normal. You need to rest, drink plenty of water and avoid stress, which can compromise your immune system further.

Of course, it’s not always practical to call in sick every time you have a stuffy nose. But considering the risks posed by COVID-19 — and the impact of presenteeism — it might be worth going easy on yourself and taking time off if you need to.