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Do I get sick more than most people? Why?
April 24, 2014 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Last year I called in sick nine days. So far this year, I'm up to five counting today, which is roughly on track if you consider that I get sick less during the summer. Where does that put me among people who work office jobs with no particular hazards? I feel like this is more than most people, and more than I myself used to miss class back in college, and I'm wondering why. More details and some hypotheses inside.

Usually, my sicknesses every year consist of most short bouts of the flu-like symptoms, which go away after a day or two of just sleeping 12-16 hours a day and drinking lots of water. Maybe once a year it'll escalate to a week of sinusitis, at which point my GP will put me on a short course of antibiotics. I get the flu shot every year, although it's not clear that this helps.

I'm mostly concerned because I don't remember being sick so often in college, and an informal survey of friends and family showed that most of them self-report calling in sick much less, somewhere from zero to five days a year.

A few hypotheses:

- This is all bad statistics: I didn't track my illnesses in college because I didn't have to call in sick, and missing class is a different standard than missing a day of work (most days when I call in sick to work, I could probably stay awake and mostly focused for an hour at a time).

- Germs pass really easily in a big open-plan office where people keep food around and eat at their desks. Earlier this year, you could draw a circle on the floor plan where everybody inside called in sick within two weeks of each other, which I'm pretty sure meant somebody infected the rest.

- I have some chronic illness which only looks like repeated bouts of the flu. I'm pretty sure this isn't the case, because my GP seems unconcerned and I've participated in the sick circles.

- Everybody I'm asking is under-reporting their illnesses because I keep asking them in casual conversation and they take a guess without actually checking their records.

- I'm not getting enough sleep and when I'm sick I'm really just short on sleep. I tried to falsify this by being really strict about keeping a regular sleep schedule six nights a week this last winter (and sleeping in on Sunday so I still got eight hours). Still got sick. Although being well-rested turned out to be nice in lots of other ways, including encouraging me to work out regularly so I could fall asleep easily.

I guess in practice, this isn't an immediate problem because nobody at work has said anything to me, but I do wonder whether there's something I could do to be more reliably well.
posted by d. z. wang to Health & Fitness (63 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Germs pass really easily in a big open-plan office where people keep food around and eat at their desks.

This could well be a factor, although I think the food is a red herring. The germs are from people sneezing/coughing into their hands, or wiping their nose or whatever, then getting the flu germs on surfaces around the office.

Some ways to mitigate this:
Wash your hands properly with soap & water every time you use the bathroom (not just because you've used the bathroom, but washing with soap & water is best and this is a handy time to do it).
Whenever you return to your desk after walking around (getting coffee, meetings, whatever), use alcohol gel on your hands.
Avoid touching your face as much as possible (getting germs on your hands from handrails, door handles, etc, then touching your face is one of the main vectors for getting ill in an office).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:20 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


I get sick more frequently when I am working than when I am not working. Part of it is office germs, I think, but part of it is that when I'm not working and just the slightest bit sick, I can sleep in, take it easy, and head off the illness. When I'm working, I am more likely to keep pushing through the "tired and feeling a little bit off" part of the sickness, which means that I am more likely to get a full-on cold.

When I was not working last year, and my wife got sick, I'd catch it from her maybe 1/3 of the time. Now that I am working / resting less / pushing through feeling off, when my wife gets sick, I catch it 90% of the time. Thus, I'd say the best way to avoid getting sick (for me at least) is take the time to rest when I am just starting to feel off, rather than waiting to take time off until I'm actually sick. However, this doesn't help you miss less work!

Also, calling out nine days a year seems well within the normal range to me.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:23 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


Germs pass really easily in a big open-plan office

This is really all you need to consider.

From a business perspective, say the cost of one person being sick for a week is $x (due to having to pay them sick leave and due to lost productivity).

The cost of infecting y people is at least y*$x. It's almost always significantly more, because the people tend to get sick sequentially (so there's a long period of people being sick) and because the impact of one person being sick can generally be absorbed by other people, but the impact of a department of people getting sick is harder to be absorbed without impact to the higher level organization.

Most businesses would rather just pay $x to avoid the chance of having to pay y*$x. If you're not hearing grumbling from your coworkers/management about taking sick leave, there's no reason to worry about it - that's why the sick leave is there. If you are hearing grumbling from your coworkers/management about taking sick leave, take it as a negative sign about the company's policies - they are being a bit shortsighted in their view of employee costs.
posted by saeculorum at 8:25 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


There are habits/behaviours that can increase the chances of getting sick, like not washing your hands often enough, not eating enough healthy foods, touching your face, etc. How are you for that? No joke, I got sick a LOT less when I stopped biting my nails. You also need to be really anal about washing your hands. Of course you should wash them after you use the washroom, but you should also wash your hands prior to eating (hands touch germs -> hands touch food -> food now germy).
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:26 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


When I was working from home, I got sick a lot less than I do now (commuting via public transit and working in an office). Plus I have a child in daycare, which definitely increases the number of germs coming into our house. Like insectosaurus, I try my best to take off near the beginning of a sickness instead of waiting until I'm completely gross. Also, keeping a bottle of fun hand sanitizer on my desk keeps me using it all day long.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:28 AM on April 24


According to this article from last year, the average in the US is around 5 days.

How often do your coworkers take sick days? Yes, germs pass really easily around your office, but that would affect all your coworkers not just you.

Of course, just because you take more sick days, doesn't mean you get sick more than other people. Some people come in to work no matter what..... any infect everyone else
posted by missmagenta at 8:30 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


Just because someone called out sick less days than you doesn't mean they were ACTUALLY sick less than you. For what its worth, my co-workers routinely come to work when they are sick. We've all really been sick around the same amount of days this year (from my offhand calculations), but I am the only one who has used 3 sick days. Go figure.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 8:32 AM on April 24 [6 favorites]


Possibly the difference is that the threshold for calling in sick for other people is higher than than your own threshold. I've had a few mornings where I need to take DayQuil and drink tea to make it through the day, whereas you might just stay home through it.
posted by deanc at 8:32 AM on April 24 [3 favorites]


Do you take public transport? Do you or a close friend or family member have children that have recently started school or playgroup? Do you chew your fingernails/play with your face a lot? There are a lot of factors that can influence how often you get sick. As someone that almost has to sit on her husband when he is sick to stop him going to work, I imagine it is more a case of your sick co workers dragging their asses in and sharing the germs all around instead of staying at home like they should.
posted by wwax at 8:34 AM on April 24


You might also want to bear in mind that what you consider "flu-like symptoms" other people might consider to be a minor inconvenience that it is not missing work for.

Personally, depending on how busy I am, my nose needs to be running like a drain or running a high temperature before I would take time off work (and even then I might still work from home, which I then wouldn't consider a sick day). I realize that from a "spreading germs around the office" point of view, my approach may not be the best, however, in my experience (amongst my peers) this is more "normal" than taking off every day that one feels unwell. I probably average about 1-2 sick days (i.e. non-working days) per year.

As an aside, flu is a serious illness; do you really consider you have flu multiple times a year? Are you sure you don't mean a common cold?
posted by teselecta at 8:37 AM on April 24 [6 favorites]


Your flu-like symptoms could just be dehydration, and maybe you're not getting enough sleep in general. Make sure you're getting enough water at work, get a large refillable bottle that you make sure to drink all day. Be sure, triple sure, to wash your hands every time you use the bathroom and don't put your hands on the door handles.
posted by mareli at 8:39 AM on April 24 [3 favorites]


I don't think that nine days in a year sounds all that weird/much. It's more than I usually have to take, but some years I've had to take more. Some years less. Some of my coworkers (open office, shared fridge, etc.) take much more sick time and some much less.

It's almost certainly not the flu if it's going away within a day, so the flu shot could indeed be protecting you from Actual Flu.

Do you have any seasonal or indoor (pet, dust) allergies? I find that a lot of my sinus-type symptoms infections often start with allergies. Keys to health: avoiding allergens and/or taking allergy meds.
posted by mskyle at 8:39 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


That does sound like an above-average amount of sick time to be off work.

I feel pretty strongly that our good health is easily traced back to getting a good amount of sleep, drinking plenty of clear water, and maintaining a healthy diet. Avoiding refined sugars and non-natural drinks (by that I mean sports drinks, red bull, too much coffee, etc), and eating good stuff like like bone broths, veggies, lean meats, etc.

I spend most of my work day walking in and out of public places, so I touch door handles many many times a day. My hubby does the same type of job, and we have a toddler in daycare. Fortunately I can report that we don't get sick very often. In addition to maintaining a healthy diet, we have a hard-and-fast rule in our house: When you come home, first, take off your shoes, and then Go Wash Your Hands. That way we are not depositing outside germs on the doorhandles and everything else in the house to spread to one another. (I also use hand sanitizer in my car, but no one else in the family does.)

Start with sleep, and drink a glass of water before you go to bed at night, and a glass when you wake up in the morning. Easy easy changes to make and can't hurt in the least when trying to support your immune system.
posted by vignettist at 8:41 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


How often do you wash your hands for the recommended 30 seconds? My company allows for 6 sick days a year. Over that will get you in trouble. Consistently over that will get you fired unless you qualify for FEMLA.
posted by cecic at 8:43 AM on April 24


That's probably about on par with me - that said, usually I have a few sick days a year that are actually migraine-so-bad-I-can't-get-out-of-bed days, so if you took those out, my number would be lower.

But this is all so workplace and job-responsibilities dependent. I have a job I can do pretty easily from home, and so there are times that I call in and say "Hey, I'm feeling crappy, I don't think I need a full-on sick day but I'm going to work from home for a day or two to get some extra rest and spare you all the germs." In a different workplace or with different responsibilities, I might either call out sick, or come in sick. There's only so much you can compare your situation to anyone else's.

I do think that taking public transit makes me sicker more often than car-commuters (both exposure to sick folks on transit, and the amount of time I spend standing around in the cold/rain at stops), so that's a potential factor to consider.

It certainly wouldn't do you any harm to focus on better eating/sleeping/hydrating/exercise habits and see if that helps bolster your immune system, but the only thing you're saying that sounds worrisome to me is that sounds like a lot of frequency of flu-like symptoms, if you're talking about something above and beyond cold-like symptoms.
posted by Stacey at 8:50 AM on April 24


I am one of those people who very rarely gets sick, but that hasn't always been the case. What seems to make the difference for me, beyond what was mentioned upthread, is taking a multivitamin every day (even though I eat very healthily) and drinking zero-calorie sports drink after I exercise or exert myself.

It is also possible that you may just be going through a "phase". Several years ago, I ran a low-grade fever a few days a week. Not enough that I couldn't get out of bed, but enough to make me feel pretty crappy. The doctor wasn't nearly as concerned as I was, but it eventually blew over after a year or so.
posted by DrGail at 8:50 AM on April 24


Just an additional bit of anecdota: several years ago I started getting regular, long-lasting sinus infections that required regular antibiotic treatment. After a few years of this, I was (coincidentally) referred to a dental hygienist who taught me how to brush my teeth and floss properly (I didn't have any major dental problems; it was just something new that the dentist started doing). Almost instantly my sinus infections stopped and it's been something like 5 years since I last had one.

Whether the enhanced dental regime made a difference, I can't really say, however it did seem awfully coincidental at the time. How's your dental hygiene regime?
posted by teselecta at 8:52 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


Gosh, I'm so rarely out sick that it can be one day in 3 years. I did have some kind of food poisoning last year, and only blowing chunks in the ladies room AND being told by our VP, "Jesus, you look awful, go home," did I actually go.

I do have Valley Fever, so when it acts up, I get a horrible bronchitis, and fever and can't work. But it's not contageous. That happened a lot when I was younger, before I did the anti-fungal treatment. I haven't had a respiratory issue since.

So you may want to go to a doctor and ask, "do I have an immune weakness of some sort, I seem to get sick more often than the average bear." See what you're told.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:55 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


You take a lot of sick days. Define "flu-like symptoms." That could be anything - headache, body-ache, runny-nose, lack of energy. Any of these symptoms send me to bed early for a night or two and then I'm fine. I've never taken more than two sick days in a year and it's almost a year and half since I last took a sick day. For me the secret is getting enough sleep *before* my symptoms get so bad I can't go into work.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:59 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


I used to get what I called "mini-flus." I would feel awful for a day, coughing up a storm and achy all over, your basic chest cold feeling. The next day I would feel basically back to normal. I went to the doctor, and she said, "I would like it if your asthma was better controlled." I blinked at her cluelessly and said, "I have asthma?" Now I take Singulair and many fewer sick days. I also feel like a dumbass for not putting two and two together all those years. Moral of the story - a trip to the doctor to rule out any underlying issues might not go amiss. You are probably smarter than I am, though.
posted by backwards compatible at 9:02 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


Sleep deprivation definitely weakens your immune system. See here, for example.

I used to get a lot of colds. A few years ago, I started eating more fermented foods: sauerkraut, kim chee, miso soup, soy yogurt, soy keffir, umeboshi plums, fermented salsa, and real pickles (not the ones made with vinegar-based brine). I also drink kombucha every day. Eating fermented foods strengthens your immune system by giving it work to do. At least, that's the theory. Since I've started eating these things, I've found that I don't get sick as often as I used to.
posted by alex1965 at 9:03 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


"I get sick more frequently when I am working than when I am not working." For me, it's just the opposite. When I'm working at home, which is most of the time, I'm not exposed to the outside world and all its various bugs, infections, germs, etc., so that when I do go out, I'm far more susceptible to these things. Build up your immune system so that you don't fall for every insidious microbe that strays across your path. Get enough sleep, eat right, cut down on alcohol and junk, and get outside every day.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:05 AM on April 24


Wow, that's almost 2 weeks of calling in sick a year! I work with the public and so I'm around gross disgusting things all the time, and I haven't called in sick in probably 4-5 years. I think a lot of it depends on what your workplace allows. I've been at the kind of places where when you call in for one day, you're told, "You better be here tomorrow," and I'd rather just go in and deal with feeling gross than getting a guilt trip from my bosses.
posted by jabes at 9:10 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


Are the bulk of your sick days in the winter? Could you be Vitamin D deficient?

I ask because two years ago I had a sinus problem, diagnosis of which included a serious Vit D deficiency that was hampering my immune system. When I got it treated, I felt enormously better in myself.

I used to be the sickly person in the office. This last winter, I've tackled the issue in a serious way (better diet, light therapy) and I did not catch one cold from the end of November to the end of March.

If you live far from the equator, don't eat a metric ton of oily fish and walnuts, and didn't have a sunny holiday over the winter, consider this as a possibility.
posted by greenish at 9:13 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


If you are actually too sick to leave the house and get to work nine days a year, that's a lot. My jobs have always provided 10-15 days of leave, total, for sick days/scheduled leave/vacation, and I can't fathom using the majority of that on sick days. Either you need to probe deeper with the doctor on what is wrong, or your threshold for staying home when you are sick is way too low. Most people I know will come to work with a cold. You're not getting the flu; you KNOW when you've got the flu, because it's agony. There's a lot of wiggle room between "I haven't taken a single day in five years" and "I take 3-4 days a year, one of which was really just a hangover/mental health day," but nine is a LOT for a single year.

Also, you may think it's not an issue at work, but even if nobody has said anything, it probably is. You want to resolve this, either by working through some of your illnesses or by getting proper treatment for any chronic illnesses, if you have them.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 9:18 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


++1 on underlying issues. For me,

- As a teenager/young adult, colds turned to bronchitis & pneumonia that lingered for weeks until I got my asthma better treated. For me this is Advair daily; now colds are just colds. I have a nebulizer for home use if life gets bad during a cold, and I don't hesitate to use it.

- I have been prone to sinus infections. Friends talked me into trying a Neti pot, which has really also helped with keeping things moving as they should.

- Just last year I was diagnosed with a serious(!) vitamin D deficiency, and now I take daily pretty-big doses. Until last winter, I got at least 5-6 colds a winter; seriously, everything and anything that anyone else had, I got. This winter? Zero. Could be an anecdotal aberration, but ... zero. Wow.

- Carry hand sanitizer. Deploy it. Get aggressive about public health: avoid sick people and tell them why.
posted by Dashy at 9:21 AM on April 24


You know, I didn't really consider the "Your idea of 'sick' is someone else's 'inconvenient'" angle but that very possibly could be contributing to your high frequency. I am admittedly a bit of a wuss when it comes to being sick, and for a long time I had been taking above-average number of sick days (close to what you take). If I felt at all grungy and not up to par I would stay home. Then I actually got FOR REAL sick with a flu and man... Yeah, I know what an actual flu feels like now. And the problem was that I had used up a huge number of my sick days on things that didn't warrant it. I could NOT go to work when I had that flu so I actually took a day or two off unpaid because I ran out of sick time. I wish I hadn't wasted all those sick days earlier when I was just a bit grungy. Lesson learned.

So now I need to be PROPERLY ill for me to justify staying home. Partially because I know I just shouldn't be taking that many days off, but also so that I have the sick days available when they are actually needed. Sure, there are some days when I come to work when I'm feeling grungy that I wish I was home sleeping, but I surprise myself how often I drag my ass to work on grungy days and end up having a totally productive day at work and ultimately feeling mostly okay. And on the day when I am sick enough to warrant staying home I do it with zero guilt.

Maybe this is related to what is happening to you, maybe it isn't, but it is maybe something you should think about. Maybe ask people in your office how sick they need to be before they call in sick.

Oh, and side note, no one ever said anything about how often I took sick days, but now that I am taking a normal number of sick days my supervisor has commented on how glad she is to see me not taking so many days off sick. So yeah, like bowtiesarecool is saying, people are work probably are noticing and it is probably reflecting poorly on you.

So whether you have an underlying health issue that needs to be address, or whether you need to change your "I am too sick to go to work" threshold, you really should address this.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:25 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


Yes, nine days is alot. Noone in my office of 20 takes that many a year unless they are pregnant. Next time you have flu like systems go to emergent care or the doctor and see what they say it is. That would give you a guide for whether or not you have some issues that need looking into.

I doubt people are underestimating much - my family of four combined probably hasn't missed 9 days of school/work in the last 2 years. Not that we never have colds or allegeries, but not usually severe enough to put us in bed for the day.

It may not be an offical issue at work but people notice. If there are other offical issues with your work, it could become an issue.
posted by domino at 9:34 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


9 days a year seems like a lot. I think it would get you put on "Written Counseling" status at my place of work, unless there was FMLA involved. I think I only usually take 2-3 days a year. I also don't have kids though, I think sick kids use up a lot of people's sick days.
posted by ghharr at 9:34 AM on April 24


To second greenish and make my second Vitamin D recommendation of the day (!), D3 is where it's at. When I started supplementing I went from getting sick at least every couple of months to getting sick basically never. I can tell when my levels are too low again because I start getting sick all the time.
posted by Andrhia at 9:38 AM on April 24


I'm going to agree with people above who suggest that this might be some underlying health issue, or allergies, and you should get checked out. When I was getting sick a lot it ultimately turned out to be a combination of allergies and borderline low thyroid. It would not hurt to get some blood work done to check your iron levels, vitamin D, vitamin B12, thyroid, etc. Also, allergies and asthma can really be quite debilitating in some people, and can present as flu like. You might want to go to an allergist and get tested as well.

The advice to eat right, get enough rest, and try taking a multivitamin is always sensible, no matter what other issues you may have or not.
posted by gudrun at 9:39 AM on April 24


To add to my point about public health: you're getting a lot of responses here to your 'sickness threshold' angle, that perhaps you should just drag yourself into the office when you're only a little bit sick.

Speaking as someone who has seemed to catch everything coming down the pipeline, and on behalf of immunocompromised everywhere: please don't. Just - don't.

Address the sickness or underlying issue, but please do not make other people sick just to save face with your boss. This is a widely-accepted tenet of public health.
posted by Dashy at 9:40 AM on April 24 [9 favorites]


Are you an anxious person? When I had untreated anxiety I felt physically ill a lot more. Also sometimes when you feel you can't face the day it can manifest itself as physical symptoms.
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 9:43 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


You probably call in sick so often because your coworkers don't call in sick often enough. They are coming to work contagious and spreading their germs.

Have any of your coworkers' young children started daycare or school recently? At my old job, my entire department got sick at least once a month for the first several months after my boss's daughter started daycare. She kept catching viruses from the germ-riddled rugrats at daycare and bringing them home and then my boss brought the germs to work.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:48 AM on April 24 [4 favorites]


I probably feel the way you describe about the same number of times per year, but I don't take a sick day for a majority of them. If I have a ridiculously high fever and I can't sit upright for more than 5 minutes at a time then I will take a sick day, but otherwise I just go in or work from home when that's an option. Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm everywhere I've worked - feeling like crap isn't in itself a reason to take a sick day and you have to be REALLY REALLY sick to justify it. Of course, this also results in people coming into the office and spreading germs, getting other people sick, etc. but that's just the way it is.
posted by joan_holloway at 9:49 AM on April 24


I'd step up the handwashing, hand sanitizer, and really be aware of how much we touch surfaces (doorknobs, keyboards, mice, light switches) that collect germs. Really pay attention to it for a few days and you find out how easy it is for something to have been handled by lots of people to end up sitting on your bed.
posted by cashman at 9:51 AM on April 24


Addendum to my previous comment: It got so bad that one time when I saw on my boss's wife's Facebook that their kids were sick again, I preemptively wiped down every surface in our department's offices with bleach and added a bunch of individual bottles of hand sanitizer and virus-killing Kleenix to that week's office supplies order. But I'm not sure how much that helped.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:52 AM on April 24


My workplace has a very liberal sick policy. But I also work with people with HIV/AIDS and other disabilities. It's incredibly important not to kill and or hospitalize clients because I have a cold. So we get 14 sick days per year plus vacation, personal time and other time off as well.
I unfortunately have asthma, mental health issues, possible endometriosis and suspected gall bladder issues. So at this point I've used 9 days this year and I have a surgery coming up. Gah. Ive a missed due to vomiting but now i know its not contagious sick but my gall bladder hating me so off to work I go. For cold related things I've missed 3 days because I ran a fever and asthma kicked in. But there is a point where I just carry a nebulizer and go about my day.
Most people at my work use at least 8 days a year, between the absolute stress and considerations with the population we deal with.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:19 AM on April 24


I don't think 8 days sounds like very many, that's less than once a month. I don't think I took that many last year but I was really lucky and didn't get any major colds or flu (I also got my flu shots). I also have a job where I can work from home if I'm feeling sick but not bad enough to not work.

If it helps your barometer at all, I live in San Francisco and we have city-mandated sick time. I think it's one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, which is around 8 days per year.
posted by radioamy at 10:20 AM on April 24


9 days doesn't seem like a lot to me. I was out probably 4 or 5 days in just the past 4 weeks. I had a debilitating migraine that knocked me out for three days and I had a really painful ear infection / sinus infection that accounts for the other day or two.

I work all day in a sort of public-facing job and I just can't do that be well and cheerfully when I'm in an incredible amount of pain.

I've been prone to ear/sinus/lung infections since I was born, and I now expect to miss some work every spring from something cropping up. My boss is aware that I get migraines and I have permission to just up and leave if one hits me.

I see a generally sort of "perfect attendance award!" smug It's-just-that-*I*-eat-well mentality in the US and in this thread, and having a body that was never going to let me be one of those people, I long ago decided that not missing work is for suckers. I guarantee you 95% of the people in this topic don't do anything so important that they need to show up when incredibly sick. But they like to feel like they're that important.
posted by Squeak Attack at 10:21 AM on April 24 [16 favorites]


Also, hand sanitizer? Just say no. Soap and water is sufficient.
posted by Squeak Attack at 10:27 AM on April 24 [3 favorites]


How much exercise do you get and how much time do you spend outdoors in sunlight?
posted by fearnothing at 10:40 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


Wow. These answers are bizarre to me-- some sort of brainwashed thing where missing work one day a month (!) means you are a slacker. I get 12 sick days per year and use 9 on average. I also get 24 vacation days a year and I use every single one of them. If my work did not want me to have time to recover from sickness and enjoy myself, they wouldn't provide such generous sick and vacation days. That they do shows that they value work-life balance.

I also work with the public and agree with Squeak Attack-- if I am feeling a little crummy or have a low fever, my work will suffer, so being sick is easier than being a bad worker.

I also have gotten straight 5/5 on all my evaluations for the past 4 years (only had the job for 4 years), my supervisor and the boss love me, and I've been appointed to prestigious positions in national professional organizations-- so I don't feel like my attitude towards sick and vacation has hurt me.
posted by holyrood at 10:45 AM on April 24 [7 favorites]


It's clear (and not surprising) that it's hard to get a bead on what's "normal". Before my work changed our time off earning schedule last year, we were getting nearly 8 days a year. But even so, that doesn't really give me any kind of meaningful benchmark on how much calling out sick is too much.

Have you talked with your doc (or maybe even a different doc for a second opinion) about this? Ask him/her specifically "I feel like I get sick more than most people. How can we test this hypothesis? And how can we rule out other other underlying health problems?"

It may take something like keeping a log of everything that you do on a daily basis. Take a week and write down everything - like how much you sleep, what you eat, every time you wash your hands, how much you interact with the public, the health of the people around you, who has kids and who has sick kids that you talk with, shake hands with, do you share hand lotion, handle the fridge door at work, share a stapler, etc.

It'd be kind of a hassle but like a food journal, it might help you see the things that you are doing without ever realizing. I've been keeping a food journal for about a month and I feel kind of dumb when I think about the sheer volume of food I ate without even thinking about it.

Good luck and good health!
posted by Beti at 10:49 AM on April 24


I think that's a bit high for number of sick days, but only a bit. Vague flu-like symptoms are more concerning to me. If you had specific illnesses like a head cold (where you're coughing, sneezing and congested) I'd be less concerned. I agree that maybe you should talk to your doctor. (Anecdotally, I had a lot more sick days and was more vulnerable to specific illnesses when I had an undiagnosed celiac disease (essentially a chronic illness when it's undiagnosed and treated). I also had accompanying vitamin deficiencies. Are you a woman? I have noticed that I am lot more susceptible to illnesses right before my period.)

On the preventative habits front, two things made a big difference for me as far as preventing colds:
-I got in the habit of washing my hands the moment I got home from work/anywhere outside
-I started treating my cellphone like the grab handles on the bus. If I touched my cellphone, hands must be washed before I eat or touch my face.

I hope you feel better more often in the future!
posted by purple_bird at 11:03 AM on April 24


9 Days would probably get me written up at work.

I agree with everyone about washing your hands. I also put a large bottle of hand sanitizer right inside my office. Scrub in and out when I enter/exit.

That worked well for me for a few years.

Then the kiddo went to pre-school, but that's another thing all together.
posted by PlutoniumX at 11:04 AM on April 24


Also, hand sanitizer? Just say no. Soap and water is sufficient.

Hand sanitizer is sufficient for many things, though not everything. I learned just a few weeks ago that you can't kill noravirus with hand sanitizer. So definitely have both tools in your arsenal!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:09 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


I am prone to low grade fevers that last a day or two, not as bad as a flu but enough to be tired and achy enough to need a sick day; usually this coincides with a cold. Since I started taking a comprehensive multivitamin (Centrum Men) every day around six months ago I haven't had an incidence of that - took 6 sick days last year and so far only one this year. I've had a number of colds in that time but they have been mild enough to not necessitate days off or even really interfere a lot with my productivity. Of course this is completely unscientific but it might be worth a try.
posted by tomcooke at 11:20 AM on April 24


Something to consider: flu (true flu, influenza) usually lasts quite a lot longer than a day or two. Most "short flu" cases are actually some other form of gastric distress. A very common cause of that is mild food poisoning. It can be hard to tell the two apart sometimes, aside from the duration.

Do you wash you hands before cooking? Are you washing your veggies well? A cheap & easy veggie wash, as good as any store bought product is simply dilute white vinegar. Do you leave food out for long periods (eg on warm in a rice cooker)? Are you eating questionable foods from the back of the fridge? Do you sterilize your dishes with a hot water rinse, or (better) in a hot cycle in a dishwasher?

It never hurts to pay attention to food safety. Food-bourne illness is generally a lot more common than most people think.
posted by bonehead at 11:48 AM on April 24


What's your threshold for being too sick to go to work? Nine days seems like a lot to me, but I think that's at least in part an office culture thing. I work in a small office where my being out sick during busy times would be a big disruptor, so short of being really feverish, barfing a lot, or feeling like it's actively unsafe for me to go in to work, I don't take sick days for mild illnesses. Taking a couple OTC cold meds has me functional and well enough to work through a cold.

I think I've taken about two sick days in the past year, and they were both for migraines rather than illness (can't drive while migraine-y). And for what it's worth, I've been sick about the same number of times a year since college (1-2 times a year), and I didn't take many sick days then either (4 tops). Though admittedly in college I was way more likely to take a "mental health day," when I had classes I could skip without worrying too much.
posted by yasaman at 12:33 PM on April 24


I agree that you might just have a lower threshold for calling in sick than other people do. That doesn't mean you should go to work sick, or that you get sick more than other people do.

What do you mean by flu-like symptoms? For me, if I was running a fever I would be concerned, but I rarely run fevers if I just have a cold.

Do you have allergies? Allergies can cause recurring sinus infections and lead to generally feeling icky. If you have environmental allergies, you could look into using a HEPA filter at home, using a sinus rinse, and discussing allergy medications with your doctor.
posted by inertia at 12:57 PM on April 24


9 call outs would get me fired, so other people probably are not underestimating, they are just going to work at the same "sick" level at which you would stay home because they need to keep theri job. I also don't get sick time i just get a number of days for vacation and sick / emergency so unless I'm puking too forcefully to make it to the bathroom or have anal seepage, I drag my ass to work to preserve my precious few vacation days (which are ecrewed based on time in office so I would also get fewer days by using the sick days).
posted by WeekendJen at 1:25 PM on April 24 [2 favorites]


I get sick around the same amount you do. But I have five kids, three of which go to school to hang out with other kids all day, and the other two which go to church most Sunday mornings and hang out with other kids in Bible class.

80% of the time they get sick first, then I catch it. My wife - a nurse at a hospital - very rarely gets sick.
posted by tacodave at 3:06 PM on April 24


That's a lot of sick days. I wonder if other people just tough it out where you throw in the towel.
posted by jpe at 5:31 PM on April 24


Well, whether or not it's "too many sick days" depends on your work's allowances and culture. Nine times does kinda go into Ferris Bueller territory and it's probably more than most people....but it sounds like you stay home every time you don't feel good, and most people will suck it up and come to work unless they feel really bad. I won't call in sick unless I literally can't sit up, can't type, or can't get away for very long from Mr. Toilet, so I've maybe used one full sick day all year and otherwise use sick time for appointments. But also, I tend to be NOT prone to getting sick regardless of how much or little hand sanitizer I'm using (and I also work with the public, so I should be prone, eh?). Most people will probably be out around 3-5 times a year, I'd guess, more if they have chronic illness.

It sounds to me that either (a) you stay home every time you feel bad to sleep it off, which is probably great for your health but possibly makes you look bad at work, or (b) you just tend to be one of those people who has the same kind of illness over and over and over again without it being a chronic disease. Like how some people get bronchitis every winter or something. (I get random sore throats out of nowhere, but obviously they're not bad enough to stay home about.) Are you catching the exact same cold everyone else is having at the same time, or do you just get sick out of nowhere and nobody else around you is having "flu-like symptoms?" (I do second "actual flu means you ain't going anywhere for like a week," though. 2002 was the one year I actually caught things.) Because the impression I have here is that you pretty much have the same kind of cold/shallow flu every time. I don't think you have a permanent illness, but I do think if you have the same recurring bug every month in winter or whatever, your GP should perhaps be a bit concerned, or you should get a second opinion.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:20 PM on April 24


Did you just move for work? I've been sick a ton this year - like, I'm on my sixth or seventh cold - and I think it has something to do with moving to the West Coast for the first time. Also, you probably want to take extra Vitamin D if you're not already.

Re: how many sick days is normal, unfortunately, that's something that I think really depends on your work culture. People's hours are sort of "whenever" where I work now, so even if I have a pretty mild cold I work from home rather than spreading it around, and people seem to be generally appreciative about that as opposed to judgemental. (It's worth noting that I would drag myself in if I had an appointment or presentation that was going to be near-impossible to reschedule.) But at other places the standard is definitely "anything short of explosive GI symptoms means you will come to work AND LIKE IT." I associate that standard with more "conventional" American workplaces, and the first one more with academia and startups that originated there, but it's not a super-high correlation.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:41 PM on April 24


bonehead, "flu-like symptoms" means fever, fatigue, sore throat, headache, muscle aches, chills, etc. - the kind you might get from an actual flu (or, say, the early stages of mono). "Stomach flu" as an informal term does refer to things like norovirus, but I'd be surprised if the OP was using "flu-like symptoms" as a synonym for gastroenteritis; I've never heard that usage.

(speaking of, have you had mono, OP?)

Finally, open plan offices do appear to be more associated with sickness than cellular offices.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:48 PM on April 24


So weird to see what's other people's normal. I wonder how much it depends on the industry, and the level. Like, at my current job, I both can do a lot remotely and have hard deadlines, meaning that I stay home but don't take sick days. At my previous position, I didn't get paid if I didn't come in, simple as that.

But I've already had a sick week this year, so five days, and I'd guess that I usually catch a couple more throughout the year. I don't always get sick in the winter (I picked up something traveling that knocked me down), but I did this year.

Because of that, I don't think that nine days is particularly bad or abnormal (nor should it be).
posted by klangklangston at 10:15 PM on April 24


Yay, statistics

If you are in the UK, 9 per year is pretty much the average.

It's 7.4 in Canada, but varies a day or two by area

And, apparently, 4.9 in the US but I can't find a more credible source than a CNBC article. (Urgh)
posted by fatfrank at 2:43 AM on April 25


en forme du poire, gastroenteritis can lead to many of those symptoms you list: stomach pain, cramping, fever, nausea, and a headache. Because symptoms can be similar, people do confuse them. That's why it's often referred to as "stomach flu".
posted by bonehead at 7:32 AM on April 25


Right. But the term "flu-like symptoms" is actually a term of art that refers to a set of generic symptoms of viral infection, as opposed to the diarrhea and vomiting that you would see in something like, say, B. cereus infection. You might also have some flu-like symptoms with norovirus or salmonella, but again, those wouldn't be your primary complaint.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:35 PM on April 25


When it comes to sick days in my office, I'd say that 60% of the time someone calls in sick and never reports to work, 40% of the time they show up, power through until lunch, give up, and go home. I guess that also means that people are showing up, powering through a few hours, and deciding to stay through the end of the day. If you want to reduce your sick leave, perhaps try that approach: head to work but give yourself permission to come back home if it seems too much.

I would concur that nine days of sick leave a year is a lot. On the other hand, the federal government gives you four hours of sick leave per two-week pay period... or about one day a month. Of course, that is also meant to cover wellness visit (annual check-up, dentist, optometrist) and most younger employees are banking up leave to cover eventual parental leave.
posted by whitewall at 1:28 AM on April 26


It seems like you get sick about once every two months, or about once a month during the winter and not particularly during the summer. That seems more frequent than average to me. I usually get a cold twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, and maybe one odd day a year when I ate something bad or have a really bad headache.

(And... I do go in when I'm sick, I think most people in my office do. It turns out the lack of focus from being sick is compensated for by people not coming around to your cube for a random chit-chat.)
posted by anaelith at 6:24 PM on May 2


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