Jeremy Lesniak owns a small Web design firm in Randolph, Vt. He has 10 employees and hundreds of clients. Sick isn't an option. • "I have two cell phones and a pager," he said. "I have taken partial sick days or just worked from home, but I haven't had a real one in over six years."
The swine flu epidemic had employers desperately trying to keep sick workers at bay, calling into question companies that didn't. But the economic meltdown has stepped up pressure on worker bees and bosses alike to produce from home rather than heal in bed, said Dave Couper, a career coach and corporate human resources consultant in Los Angeles.
"There's an implicit requirement to be at work — partly because of the fear of losing your job if you're not there," he said. "Before, companies were okay about people being out sick. Now I don't see that as much. I've known people who have e-mailed from their hospital room or been on conference calls where they can hardly speak they're so sick. The recession has made it worse."
The self-employed — those with access to technology and connectivity anyway — and employees in small companies with fewer prospective subs really feel the squeeze with the sneeze.
Ashleigh Harris gives her San Francisco startup, which makes a new type of training wheel for kid bicycles, high marks for flextime. But with only three full-time positions, herself and the CEO included, calling in sick means work languishes.
"Things need to get done when they need to get done when it comes to building a successful startup," said Harris, the marketing director. "So if that means hopping on a conference call from my cell when I'm in bed, or sending a few key e-mails to hit deadlines, I'm more than happy to do it."
Some workers fear demerit systems for calling in sick — or they're up against policies that allow no sick pay at all. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 39 percent of private-sector employees fall into the latter category, including many millions in the service industry.
A survey of U.S. workers conducted in 2008 by the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research group that monitors the changing work force, found that 63 percent received at least five paid days off per year for personal illness. Low earners were much less likely to receive that number, which has been on a downward trend since 1997.
"More than half the work force says their employers call them at times when they're not supposed to be working, on a pretty regular basis," said Ellen Galinsky, the group's president and co-founder.
But even those who set their own sick policies feel crunched. Gina Kazimir has an online communications firm in Bel Air, Md., and prides herself on speedy service. "I don't take ANY days off. Even when I had swine flu I checked e-mail at least once or twice a day — and I was so sick I could barely shower," she said. Her availability to clients is expected, she said, "but I'm not sure that it increases productivity. It's definitely bad for being sick."
Unplugging when sick is also worse for Elie Rosenfeld in Teaneck, N.J. He heads a small niche advertising agency in nearby New York City. Not knowing what's going on at the office "would drive me nuts," he said, so he managed a few hours of work each day during a recent bout of strep.
"I don't even tell some clients that I'm away," he said.
The rise of mobile devices and computing systems that allow people to work remotely makes it easier to keep the work flowing from sickbeds.
"What it comes down to is a need to refine corporate policy," said Cary Landis, chief executive of Virtual Global, a Morgantown, W.Va., provider of "cloud computing" systems that help employees work at home. "Managers and HR executives need to take a look at those policies to make sure that we're getting the most out of it without tying a virtual rope around people who are home sick or on vacation."
Galinsky, of the Families and Work Institute, agreed. "Work is a marathon. We keep running harder and faster," she said. "What we know from research is that work is really much more like interval training. You need time for reset and recovery."