Nearly every American (90%) has come to work with cold or flu systems, and a third (33%) always go to the office even when they're not feeling well, according to a new survey from Accountemps, a global staffing firm. Over half of those surveyed (54%) said they come to work sick because they feel they have too much work to do to take time off to recuperate, and 40% said they simply don't want to use their sick time.

"Whether it's due to large workloads, pressure from the boss or because they can't afford to take time off, it's all too common for employees to come to the office feeling sick when they really should be resting," said Michael Steinitz, senior executive director of Accountemps. "Staying home when you've got a cold or the flu is the best way to avoid spreading germs to others and fight the illness faster."    

A woman sneezes at work as her coworker leans away.

Coming into work sick puts your whole office at risk. Image source: Getty Images.

It's about culture

Many companies set a tone that workers should come to the office even if they're not feeling well. That may be through implied actions by management or by not offering sick days or the flexibility to work from home when an employee feels he or she may be sick.

"Bosses should set an example by taking time off when they're under the weather, encouraging employees to do the same and offering those with minor ailments the ability to work from home," Steinitz said.

Only 11% of the 2,800 office workers surveyed said they always stay home when they're not feeling well. A third (33%) confessed they always go to work even if they are sick, while 57% said they do so sometimes.

Companies should take a long-term view

Workers clearly feel pressure to not take time off, even if they're not feeling well. That's admirable but misguided, as it could cause more harm than good.

If an employee comes to work sick, he or she runs the risk of spreading illness to the entire office. That could take a minor issue -- one person missing a day or two thanks to a cold or flu -- and make it a much bigger problem.

To avoid these worst-case scenarios, management has to make it clear that it's OK, even encouraged, for employees to take time off when they're not feeling well. That starts with having a generous sick time policy so workers can recuperate without feeling like they're wasting vacation days.

Companies can also more broadly offer flexibility in allowing a work-from-home arrangement when someone feels a bit ill. If an employee can call into a meeting when he or she has a cold or other minor illness, the work still gets done, but no one else in the office gets exposed to the illness.

Management should empower their employees to make sensible decisions about when they should come to work. A company's leadership should set a tone where it's clear to workers that sick days are not only acceptable, but encouraged. Such a policy may actually benefit the company's bottom line by keeping minor illnesses from spreading throughout the office and taking out even more employees along the way.