Deathbed Emails- Is There a "Sick Day" Double Standard?

Last Updated Oct 8, 2010 7:15 AM EDT

With cold and flu season barreling down on us, managers need to know how their teams will deal with the inevitable sick days. A friend of mine who works from home recently complained about having to attend conference calls even when at death's door. Do managers and teammates treat remote workers and those who schlep to the office the same way? Is there a double standard in the way managers treat their workers' illnesses?

If I'm at the office and I feel lousy I just tell everyone I'm going home, I get lots of good wishes and get (pretty much) left alone for a while to recuperate. Work gets reassigned or people graciously extend deadlines when they can. But if I work at home on a regular basis do I get the same sympathy? Both employees and their managers need to look at how to handle these issues, and preferably before you're on deadline for a major project.

Questions managers should ask themselves:

  • Is there an HR policy on sick days and if I put a gun to your head could you tell me what it is? If I don't go into the office and take a sick day, there's a record of that, it goes into HR or Payroll and it's accounted for. They surrender a day of their time, and in exchange aren't expected to work. Do your remote workers get the same respect or do you still call them, email and IM and expect responses? If you get them to work on a day they call in sick are you in violation of your HR policy and state labor laws?
  • If someone calls in sick remotely, who tells the rest of the team? If Sally doesn't come in to work, there's an empty cubicle and everyone knows she's not there. But if someone in a home office is sick, where's the cue to the rest of the team? The barrage of emails, IMs and increasingly panicked phone calls doesn't stop unless everyone knows not to bother Sally today. Does your team have a process in place for that? Can you reassign tasks or run interference for the patient until they feel better?
  • What does it say about you if someone claims to be sick and you still ask them to rattle off that email or be on that call? If someone is too sick to work and is willing to claim a sick day, what kind of person would expect them to still fire off that one last email or be on the status call anyway? Look at it this way, if someone's sick enough to give up a credited sick day are you really going to get the best from them? And if I'm feeling really awful, I'm not really loving the boss who diminishes my fever and body aches and expects me to be on that conference call. Over time this perceived lack of empathy can create problems with the working relationship.
  • Can you help people take care of themselves? A common problem for those who work remotely, especially from home, is that people already work longer hours and are constantly connected. Sometimes a manager has to say, "enough...go to bed and we'll talk tomorrow".
Questions employees should ask:
  • Am I playing the martyr? This is between you and your conscience, but if you're really sick admit it. If you're feeling lousy enough that you wouldn't go into the office, claim a sick day and get better. If you continually work when you're sick and don't claim the sick days you're due it not only impacts your payroll (the dreaded "Use it or lose it" time) but you're probably not doing your best work between staggering trips to the bathroom. If you don't take an official sick day, the company expects you to work, that's why they exist.
  • If I don't tell anyone I'm sick, how will they know? Does your manager know how lousy you feel? Let them know your status (without too much graphic detail!), what's on your agenda and ask them how you want them to handle your assignments and work load. Change your voicemail message and IM status with an explanation and an expected time you'll be back in the land of the living so teammates aren't waiting for answers that aren't coming.
  • If you claim you're too sick to work, stay the heck away from your email? This one is squarely on your shoulders: Go to bed, feel better and get back to work fast. If you claim to be sick and still answer email and the phone, people will expect you to work when you're sick.
This is just one of the little unexpected issues that come up when you change the way you work with your team. How you as a manager handle it can help build relationships and connection or create an environment where people who work remotely feel like the boss and the company doesn't care about them.

You love your remote workers as much as you do the cube-dwellers, right?

photo by flickr user the italian voice CC 2.0