At one time or another, everyone’s done it – gone to work or attended class when they weren’t feeling well.

Times have changed, however, and the COVID-19 pandemic is now forcing everyone to think and act differently. One of the biggest changes outlined in St. Thomas’ Campus Preparedness Plan – which is guiding the gradual reopening of campus as the university prepares to welcome back students for the fall – calls for a major behavioral change from students and employees alike.

Namely – if you’re sick, stay home.

But in a culture where people are used to “toughing it out” for the sake of work or class, this may be easier said than done. The Newsroom recently sat down with Associate Professor Salina Renninger of the Morrison Family College of Health to discuss why many believe they can’t afford to miss work or class, even if they’re sick.

Renninger, who is director of training for doctoral students in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, said there are multiple layers – societal, organizational, individual – when thinking about why folks might be resistant to staying at home when sick. Renninger refuted many myths people believe when it comes to rationalizing staying home when sick.

Myth No. 1: I’ll be penalized if I stay home

The St. Thomas Campus Preparedness Plan advises people to self-screen for COVID-19 twice a day. Individuals who do become ill while on campus must go home or to their residence hall room as soon as possible. Students should contact the Center for Well-Being about testing for COVID-19, while faculty and staff are encouraged to reach out to their primary health care provider for services.

Despite direction such as this, many people have a hard time believing they will not be somehow punished for staying home.

Salina Renninger

Organizations must be clear that they want everyone to stay home when feeling sick, said Renninger.

“That has to come from the top and then it trickles down to a managerial, boss or professor level to students, staff and faculty,” she said. “Organizations need to be really clear that people shouldn’t be coming to work when they’re sick and you won’t be penalized for that.”

Myth No. 2: Calling in sick will upset your colleagues

Quite the opposite, in fact. When you don’t call in sick when ill, that can cause problems. It’s not unusual for co-workers or fellow students to react negatively to someone at work or in the classroom who is sick. Not only do your colleagues and peers want to avoid getting sick, an unwell colleague is often a distraction.

“There is literature suggesting that co-workers get upset and they retreat a bit when you show up sick,” Renninger said.

Myth No. 3: Even if I’m sick, it’s more productive if I come to work

Again, the opposite is true – especially for your co-workers/classmates. They are actually less productive if people show up sick because they don’t want to engage and get sick themselves.

Mild symptoms might still allow you to engage in work remotely. But sometimes it’s best to just shut off the computer.

“If someone really feels like they need to work, encourage them to use Zoom or other strategies so they can do what they feel up to,” she continued. “If people are sick, they should stay home and rest. That is what’s going to serve them in the long run, so they can be healthy and come back to work or the classroom.”

Myth No. 4: It’s my fault for being sick, so I should just tough it out

Renninger admits she’s gone to work when sick in the past, but she thinks back on those pre-COVID-19 decisions much differently now. Taking care of yourself and doing your part to create a community of care is important, she said.

“There’s this idea that people feel shameful sometimes when they’re sick,” she said. “They might feel inadequate, like they shouldn’t be sick or there’s something they did that made them feel responsible for their illness. That’s another reason they might go to work when they don’t feel well.”

We must help people accept their human limits.

“Be compassionate and kind with yourself,” Renninger said. “This is a time to take care of yourself, and by doing that you’re caring for others. When you don’t take care of yourself, productivity, burnout – all those things – get worse, and that doesn’t help anyone.”
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