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Future of Work

Sick Days Don’t Look So Good Now That You Can Work From Home

During the pandemic, people may find themselves logging on remotely even when they’re under the weather.

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Illustration: Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia for Bloomberg Businessweek

A few months back, it seemed as if the coronavirus pandemic would kill off presenteeism—you know, showing up at work with a sniffle or cough to prove your value or ensure you get your paycheck. Companies that didn’t offer paid sick leave were sure to wise up, realizing it was madness to create incentives for workers to spread germs on the job, and Type A workaholics would see that putting the entire office at risk of infection is more selfish than selfless. As it turns out, presenteeism just got a new address: the kitchen table. “You’re expected to be always accessible, because where else could you be?” says Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow. “There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.”

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, remote work had started to chip away at sick days. Slack messages saying “I’ve got a cold brewing, so I’ll work from home today” were already replacing “Hey, boss [cough, cough], I need a sick day” phone calls. A 2014 Stanford University study found that call center employees who worked from home put in more days, because they stayed on the job at times they would have been too ill to come to the office. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year found that people with flu symptoms were more likely to work if they had the option to do so from home. “When everything happens in the same place, you no longer have that geographic boundary” between work and home, says Barbara Larson, a business professor at Northeastern University.