Employees Who Are Never Out Sick? They Simply Bring it in to Work

Earlier this week, there was a fascinating story in The Wall Street Journal about employees who reportedly have not missed a day of work in decades.

Yes, you read that right — decades. We’re talking about people who have gone 25 years or more without taking a sick day. And as a longtime (30 years plus) manager at a variety of workplaces in a number of different cities and states — I don’t buy it for a minute.

Here’s the gist of The Journal‘s story:

It may be hard to believe in an era of floods, flu epidemics and flexible schedules, but some people haven’t missed a day of work in decades. They buck up when feeling ill and schedule events and activities around weekends and vacation days. They say, of course, that they keep coming for one reason: They love their jobs. Some own up, too, that streaks are just irresistible.

Even so, fewer employers these days are rewarding perfect attendance with cash or gifts, partly because they don’t want people coming to work sick. Also, growth in jobs that can be done from anywhere has shifted employers’ focus away from stressing face time, toward “getting them to do their best work possible” from wherever they are, says Bob Nelson, an author on employee motivation and president of Nelson Motivation in San Diego.”

My guess: they actually come to work sick

Now, you’ll have to read the article to get the full sense of the background behind these people who are “never” sick, but the WSJ story makes you believe that this is due to workers motivated by attendance awards or a super-human work ethic, or who have had the good fortune to get sick on the weekend or their day off.

Yes, I suppose that is possible, but I’m a skeptical sort who has managed a lot of employees over a lot of years and seen just about every type of workplace situation you can imagine. So, please understand that reading about employees who claim to NEVER get sick for decades males me roll my eyes because I think there is another reason they never, ever take any sick days.

It’s very simple: when they’re ill, they bring it to work with them. Yes, they are sick on the job.

The Journal‘s story hints at this.

Colleagues sometimes wonder if marathon workers would be better off at home. Stacey Taylor has been showing up nonstop for 25 years for her nursing job at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “If I wake up not feeling well, I just figure I’ll soon feel better,” says Ms. Taylor, 50. “I don’t even think about not getting up.” A rare bout with the flu last year came on her day off.  …

Ms. Taylor’s boss, JoAnn Ioannou, once tried to send her home. “I could tell she had a cold. She had a mask on, and she didn’t look well,” says Ms. Ioannou, assistant director of medical nursing. But Ms. Taylor insisted the cold was minor, and when Ms. Ioannou made her take her temperature, it was normal. Ms. Taylor finished her workday wearing the mask, with no ill effects, says Ms. Ioannou.”

Why coming to work sick is a bad idea

My sense is that Stacey Taylor WAS really sick on this occasion that the article mentions, and that she simply went to work feeling ill. And I say this from experience, because — guess what? — I used to be one of those people.

There was a time when I tried to always work no matter how I felt and gut it out for the good of the company. I went to work sick, probably spread it to my co-workers (more on that in a moment), and thought I was being a loyal employee by doing it.

But guess what? I found that company loyalty is usually a one-way street and coming to work sick means that a) the company doesn’t get your best effort; b) you take longer to get well and back on your game; and, c) you end up getting a lot of your co-workers sick in the process.

I’ve seen this in other people too, and as I matured as a manager I found that the best policy is to send people home sick at the first hint of illness. Too many people, even in today’s highly disengaged workplace, try to gut it out and work through the pain.

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Sometimes, it’s because they’re hourly employees and need the money, or because they don’t get sick time, or something along those lines. But, I’ve seen a lot of salaried workers who do get sick days take this approach too.

Sick people simply bring it to work with them

In the end, they don’t do themselves — or their co-workers — any favors. I’ve seen entire departments decimated for weeks because one person decided to come to work sick, and even this week’s American Idol showed what can happen when a sick person tries to soldier on in the midst of a bunch of other healthy folks. Yes, it’s not very pretty when people suddenly start retching all over the place.

That’s why you should color me highly skeptical when I read in The Wall Street Journal about super human employees who NEVER have used a sick day in more than 25 years. The law of probability makes it highly unlikely.

Although I applaud their work ethic, I don’t buy it in the least. They HAVE been sick, and probably sick on the job, but they found a way to do it without actually taking sick time — and in my management book, that is never a good thing.

Oh, and one more thing: Sue Schellenbarger, the author of The Journal article on employees who never take a sick day, wrote a follow-up blog post that noted that none of the candidates in the original story who had perfect work attendance records “was primarily responsible for child care at home.” Her point:  Child-care responsibilities can have a big impact on absenteeism at work.

Yes, she’s making my point for me – and it is even more of a reason why we shouldn’t be celebrating people who are NEVER out sick from work.

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.