Colds and flu

Updated 07 August 2017

SEE: How long should you stay home when you are sick?

In today’s fast-paced world, we are reluctant to take time off to heal properly. Here's why we shouldn't be overeager to get back to work.

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You know the scenario: You’ve been booked off with flu, and after a day or two your symptoms start easing up.

You picture your email inbox exploding and your work piling up – and the next morning you brave the elements back to work. Hey, you'll be fine, and you're already feeling better, right?

Before you know it, your legs feel wobbly and that achy, feverish feeling starts creeping up on you again. Maybe you should have taken another few days off...

Flu, a sore throat, stomach bugs, the list goes on. Germs abound in winter, especially in confined air-conditioned office spaces. Taking enough time off to heal can be hard, especially when work is piling up and your symptoms are starting to abate.

We look at some of the reasons why you absolutely shouldn’t return to work if you are sick, and how to know when your body is strong enough to get back to the office. 

When you should wait before going back to work:

1. Your illness is contagious

You will risk making your colleagues sick. Diseases like influenza (flu) or the norovirus (stomach bug) spread easily through airborne droplets, human contact and shared surfaces.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incubation period for common illnesses starts before symptoms appear, which means you can be contagious even before you know you're sick.

Contagious diseases can quickly spread in public spaces, especially open-plan offices with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. According to a previous Health24 article, it is recommended that you only go back to the office 24 hours after your fever breaks or after symptoms clear up to be entirely sure you are no longer contagious. 

2. Your symptoms and medication disrupt your work 

While you might think you are able to cope, you could be costing the company more than you realise by making silly mistakes because you feel lousy. Some medications taken for common illnesses such as cold or flu can impair your cognitive skills and make you feel drowsy.

If your job allows no room for mistakes, stay home until you are fully healed. Your office may also not be equipped for you to heal comfortably – there might be limited bathroom access or no suitable storage for your medication.

3. Even if your symptoms are clearing up, your body still needs rest  

We often mistake lack of symptoms for normal health and don't give our bodies a proper break. If you rush back into your work routine too quickly, you may have a relapse and get sick all over again. 

Why your body needs rest even after your symptoms are gone

While you may no longer be contagious after your symptoms have cleared up, you should remember that your body took strain. Your immune system is still in fighting mode and has not entirely recovered.

The odds are that you might get infected again if you don't protect yourself. Dr Will Sorey from the University of Mississippi Medical Centre says that proper care during common illnesses, as well as the steps you take afterwards, are important to build up your immune system He suggests the following:

  • Proper hydration and nutrition
  • Not rushing back into exercise or physical activity
  • Paying attention to worsening symptoms immediately
  • Taking extra precaution not to get reinfected when you are back at work
  • Getting extra sleep at night to replenish your body 

how long to recover

Read more:

11 sick leave FAQs

Sick leave: the facts

Anxiety and depression increase risk of sick leave

 

Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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