Why do sick people insist on going to work?

Have you heard of the sick leave bonus?

It’s an incentive that some companies offer to employees who never take a sick day. Never mind that sick leave is an entitlement under the Employment Act. Never mind that a sick employee might compromise their colleagues’ or their own safety.  

Last year, a pest control technician was jailed for refusing a COVID-19 swab test because he did not want to forfeit a S$100 monthly work incentive.

This is called the zero-MC award.

Such attendance incentives tied to statutory sick leave have been barred since the beginning of this year, with the Ministry of Manpower saying it will take enforcement action against companies who dangle such rewards. 

Three years after COVID-19 first emerged and just months after Singapore lifted practically all remaining restrictions, there’s been a new wave of cases

Although Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said in Parliament on May 9 that the wave is now waning, with the number of cases having subsided to about 3,000 a day from around 4,000 infections a day last month, COVID-19 is still a dangerous disease, particularly for the elderly and medically susceptible groups.


Sounds like you have an infection

During the new wave of cases, some companies took additional precautions, such as encouraging employees to work from home. But still, some employees feel like they must go to work even when sick. 

What’s causing this pressure to work when unwell? Are such employees afraid of losing their jobs or their clients? Is it a sign of a toxic workplace culture that values attendance over health and well-being? 

There are multiple reasons. Some workplaces have a culture of presenteeism, where employees are expected to work like robots, never take a break, and put work before everything else. Employees who follow this may get a pat on the back, a gold star, or a cookie, while those who don’t may get a stern scolding, a dirty look, or a pink slip.

High workload and deadlines are other reasons. Some workplaces have so much work that employees can’t afford to take a sick day. For example, some employees may have to juggle multiple projects, tasks, or clients and may feel like they’re on a treadmill that never stops. They may also feel like they’re playing a game of Tetris that keeps getting faster and harder.

Sometimes, the pressure comes from within. Some employees feel pressure from themselves to go to work when they’re sick. Like Michael Jordan, who played basketball with the flu and won the game, some may have a strong work ethic or sense of duty that makes them want to do their best and impress others. Or maybe they really love their job and can’t stand to miss a day.

And some do it for the performance evaluation. Even though research has shown that working from home increases productivity and work-life balance, studies have also found that it can decrease the odds of being promoted.

In a survey of US adults released in January, 56 per cent of respondents said that fully in-office employees had a competitive advantage over their remote counterparts when getting raises, bonuses and promotions.

This corresponds with pre-pandemic data from a study of remote workers in China by Stanford economists in 2013, which showed people working from home were about 50 per cent less likely to get a promotion than their onsite colleagues.

Out of sight, out of mind. Or worse, out of sight, out of favour.


I am on sick leave sign on the workplace.

It’s worth repeating that the result, not the effort, matters most. But I get it – by the time the result is out, it may be too late to fix anything if it goes wrong. This is more crucial for Singapore companies with little room for error due to our small domestic market.

Old-fashioned management may kick in and make bosses feel the need or insecurity to watch over their employees like healthy or sick hawks.

But the next time you feel sick and wonder if you should go to work, think of the bigger picture.

Going to the office may mean spreading your germs and misery to your co-workers, who will thank you with curses and glares. You will also be less alert when sick and make more mistakes.

This will affect the quality of your work, creating more headaches for yourself and others and tarnishing your reputation and prospects.

And if the illness is serious, not getting enough rest and treatment will only worsen the problem and keep you away from work longer.

Ultimately, you are feeding the beast of presenteeism, where employees may feel obliged to work when sick.

As the old English rhyme goes: He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. Or, in this case: He who works and stays away will live to work another day.

Going to work when you’re sick is like juggling knives while riding a unicycle. It’s a bad idea for you and everyone around you. You’ll end up hurting yourself and others and messing up your work.

So be smart and stay home when you’re sick. Your boss and co-workers will thank you for it. You’ll thank yourself.

It’s a win-win situation for everyone. 

Except for the germs hoping to hitch a ride with you to the office. 

But they don’t deserve your sympathy anyway.

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