Seven Tips for Sick Days: Producing Even When You’re Under the Weather

Seven Tips for Sick Days: Producing Even When You're Under the Weather

“I see sick parents and kids every day. I also know many people who go to work sick because they don’t have paid sick days. Having paid sick days would prevent the spread of illness and make sure people are not penalized for staying home when they are sick.” — Dr. Ben Danielson, Seattle pediatrician.

Although it would be awesome to actually stay home sick whenever you feel bad, it’s not always possible. PTO tends to be limited in even the best of companies, and it takes just one bout of the flu to wipe it out. Many supervisors also look askance at people calling in sick, suspicious of faking, resulting in a chilling effect on the truly ill. And many people simply have no choice but to go in no matter how we feel, because our teams depend on us—and there’s always some deadline bearing down like a mile-long freight train. And then there are the parents who can’t take sick days from their children, and entrepreneurs who have to keep the business running from bed.

But when you feel like roadkill, how can you accomplish anything at all, much less excel in your performance? You probably can’t, so let’s look at some realistic alternatives.

1. Take it easy. Rather than tackle a top priority requiring heavy-duty thinking, take care of a secondary task you need to do but may have been putting off. Organize your online files, clean your desk, polish off paperwork, delete some email archives, or complete some paperwork. If you feel better afterward, you can move on to a more significant task.

2. Give yourself permission not to excel. Do what you can, even knowing you might have to revise it later. Those two pages you wrote on the report due next week may be subpar, but they put you a little closer to completion. Feel good about making some progress.

3. Act as your own cheerleader. Get rid of the negative self-talk. You already know you aren’t at your best. Don’t listen to the inner dialog that tells you how poorly you’ll do today and how much time you’re wasting. It would be bugging you just as much, if not more, if you hadn’t come in to work. Do the best you can, just like any other day. It may not turn out as bad as you expect.

4. Take frequent breaks. Go get a breath of fresh air. If you feel up to it, walk around a little. Drink lots of water to keep yourself hydrated. Stretch for five minutes. Take a bath. Do something to help you recharge before you tackle the next task.

5. Caffeinate yourself. Tea and coffee really can perk you up and get you moving. Just don’t overdo it, since too much caffeine can dehydrate you. For every cup of coffee or non-herbal tea, drink another cup of water.

6. Time yourself. Set a timer for 15 minutes and start working on your next task, even if you feel awful. The fog may start clearing as you get into the groove. By the time the timer goes off, you may find it easier to continue. If you don’t, take a break, and then try again with another task.

7. Just stay home. No matter how much the team needs you, the best thing to do when you’re sick as a dog is stay home. No one will thank you if you spread your illness like Typhoid Mary and half the office ends up sick. A colleague once told me about a co-worker who went home from Texas to Wisconsin every year for Christmas, and seemed to bring back a super-cold every time. He prided himself on never missing a day—but he also coughed and sneezed on everyone and blew his nose like a foghorn every fifteen minutes. Not surprisingly, the office was often understaffed by mid-January.

Average It Out

You can’t maximize your productivity every single day, so make a habit of maximizing your performance whenever you can. That way, your high productivity days will make up for your bad days, leaving you with a “golden mean” of high productivity overall. If you have no choice but to work when you’re sick, do your best, but take it easier than normal. Don’t drive yourself so hard you lengthen your downtime instead of recovering.

© 2016 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (January 18, 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.



  1. why anyone would want a sick person coming into work to infect coworkers is beyond me. Either work from home or just be sick. If your supervisor is that suspicious, then you really need to find a different job. I would like to think we are beyond thinking it’s heroic to come into the office when you should be home in bed.

  2. Agree! Thanks Sheila

  3. Hello Laura,

    Great post. I have always thought that we are as productive as our body let us be. We can have the perfect productivity mindset but if we are feeling sick of exhausted, we are not going to be productive at all. This is why being aware of our human physical dimension is indispensable.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  4. I love this: we are as productive as our bodies let us be! So true—without good health, productivity suffers.