How sick is too sick?

An easy question right? Too sick is when you can’t work, yes? Not at all. Too sick to work means different things to different people in different circumstances. 

I’ll give you a personal example, the first 16 weeks of both my pregnancies were plagued with morning sickness, both including short trips into hospital. I could easily spend the first few hours of the day between running to the toilet, sipping water and taking tiny nibbles of food, it felt like my whole focus was on getting enough food inside me and to keep it down to enable me to function. I was fortunate in both my pregnancies, I did most of my work from home. As a result I didn’t call in sick once, when I needed to visit client sites I booked appointments later in the day and the days I was at home I started later. I had the luxury of being able to work with my body, when I couldn’t even lift my head without throwing up I stayed in bed and then once it passed I got up and started working. In reality there was often a transition, a point I pulled my laptop in front of me and started looking at work before I actually reached the point of sitting at my desk. Had I worked in a different environment, one where my shift started at a particular time or had I worked in London and needed to get on the train whilst being sick, I would have had to call in sick. The impact of my morning sickness on my employer was significantly reduced because I could work with my body, yes there were small impacts but all manageable and all managed by me with no impact on colleagues. In another environment, I would have had a period of 2 to 3 months with significant absence, putting pressure on my colleagues and instead of not being available to people for a couple of hours in the morning I wouldn’t have been available for days or even weeks. 

As this story shows, how sick is too sick is variable. It depends on the circumstances, I was fortunate in that my circumstances enabled me to work through the sickness. Whilst there are times things cannot be changed, work that cannot be done from home or when you must have someone present for a particular start time, there are times when changes can be made. If we can adapt and work with an individual’s circumstances the impact of sickness on your business can be significantly reduced. 

This is about doing what is right for your business to minimise the impact of absence. What is possible will depend on your operations and the job role. Minimising absence will clearly reduce the impact, but so will alternatives where they are possible, working from home, flexibility around hours and being able to openly say “I don’t feel great today”. 

There is often fear from business owners that this will lead to people “doing what they want”. The key to this, it needs to work for the business and be monitored, both in terms of what is happening and the impact. Where you are able to measure performance based on outcomes rather than presence, you will be in a much better position to trust, monitor and adapt. When you offer the flexibility you can and accept people will have days when they are not at their best, far from lowering performance, the outcome will be better motivated, more loyal, more productive people. They will absorb less stress and therefore be less prone to absence. 

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