Getting Sick and Getting Ahead: Are They Related?

“I’ve used up all my sick time, so now I’m calling in dead.” – Author unknown

A colleague of mine made an unannounced visit to one of his divisional profit centers, only to discover that the manager had been home “with a flu” for three days.

“I could hardly contain myself,” he wrote me. “I can’t think of the last time I took a sick day. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever have!”

The same is true for me. Except for being hospitalized a few times, I don’t think I’ve taken a single sick day in 30 years.

More importantly, when I think about the great people that I work with on a regular basis — MN, PS, KY, DM, DF, and DL, to name a few — none of them ever seems to get sick. Yes, they sneeze and cough now and then, but they are never “out sick.” When you really care about the work you are doing, you will work through minor illnesses. When you don’t, almost any physical problem will seem like a good reason to stay home.

(Please don’t write to tell me how irresponsible it is to show up at work with a contagious case of the flu. It doesn’t seem irresponsible to me. If fact, you are actually doing your workmates a favor — giving their immune systems a good workout.)

Super-successful people — employees, entrepreneurs, professionals — drag their sick butts into work and put in full days, armed with tissue paper and cough syrup. Not because they fancy themselves as heroes but because they feel an urgent need to accomplish their goals. That same sense of urgency that impels them to work while sick drives them forward over obstacles and setbacks.

The value of an employee isn’t really about the time he puts into his job; it’s about the quality of the work he does. But the way things seem to work out, I’ve noticed, looking back on 30 years of watching people work, is that those who do good work are also . . . almost always . . . the people who work when they are sick.

That said, it is necessary to set some sort of company policy regarding sick time. Here’s what I recommend:

1. Pick an ordinary number, one that is “average” for your industry, but err on the cheap side. (Most companies provide six to nine sick days.)

2. Don’t let employees “cash in” sick days for extra vacation or holiday time. That sends a very bad message, an entitlement message. Sick days are meant for being sick, seriously sick. They should not be considered a part of a “benefits” package.

3. Keep an eye on sick days taken. Find out who routinely completes or exceeds the allotment. Be suspicious of such people.

4. Find out also who regularly under-uses their sick days. Don’t reward them for it, because that sends the same wrong message, but keep an eye on them. They are probably doing good to very good work for you. Make sure you don’t slight them when it comes time for advancement and promotions.