When staying at home is the best thing you can do. By Raewyn Court.

Waking up with a scratchy throat gives that sinking feeling – firstly at the thought of feeling ill for days or weeks, and secondly because of how to deal with work. Do you ring in sick immediately, or go in and see what develops?

Most New Zealand employees are guaranteed a minimum of five paid sick days a year after the first six months of continuous employment. Those five days can be used up pretty quickly if you get sick, so it's tempting to go in to work with a "just a cold". But as you sneeze over your colleagues, your viral infection spreads like wildfire and can result in mass absenteeism, reduced productivity and low morale.

According to the Ministry of Health, respiratory viruses such as colds and flu are spread by coughing, sneezing and direct contact with an infected person. To avoid infecting others, people with these symptoms should stay at home until well. Employees with diarrhoea and vomiting illnesses such as food poisoning and gastric viruses should stay home until well, and for 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea or vomiting.

Caroline Sandford, executive director at The Career Development Company, says it's important to inform your boss or HR department of your sickness as soon as possible.

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"A phone call is best for this reason and, if possible, before you normally start work."

However, some organisations may prefer a different form of communication such as email or internal messaging, and Sandford suggests finding out what method they prefer before you need to use it.

Some people are hesitant to share the personal reasons they need time off, and others may overshare, providing all the gory details in order to prove they're not playing hooky. Sandford says you're entitled to keep the reasons for your sickness to yourself.

"If you've been sick for three consecutive days, your employer can request a doctor's certificate stating that you're sick, but this should not include private or irrelevant information. And if they ask for one before the three days are up, they will need to reimburse you for the doctor's appointment."

She notes that if a doctor has let you know how many days you'll need to recover, it's important to pass this information on to your boss and it's a good idea to request a doctor's certificate at the same time, stating this.

If you've taken sick leave because you're infectious but not too sick to look at your laptop, it may be tempting to stay connected with work, replying to emails and working on projects.

...you're entitled to keep the reasons for your sickness to yourself

Sandford says that while there are sometimes urgent things that only you can attend to, it's really up to you, your job, and whether there are critical projects on the go as to whether you work from home. But she advises that if possible, having a complete break is important to ensure a quick recovery.

Sick leave is a benefit that is due to you as part of your compensation package, and there shouldn't be any guilt in taking time off to get well. However, sometimes you can genuinely fall ill after a long weekend, the office Christmas party or the Rugby World Cup final, and then it can be hard to sound believable when you call in sick.

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"Of course, this happens," says Sandford. "If your boss doubts that you are really sick, they may ask for proof from a doctor, but they will need to reimburse you for this if you have been sick for less than three days."

One way to handle it is to acknowledge the coincidental timing, but hold firm.

Say something like, "I would love to say I had too much fun last night, but I don't even like rugby!"

Employers may occasionally be confronted by a situation where an employee has been diagnosed with a serious illness that may require weeks or months off work. Sandford says this situation needs to be handled with care and empathy.

"Your employee is most likely feeling vulnerable and sensitive at this time. While being supportive and positive, it's paramount that you find out as many details as possible and seek medical advice so you know what you're dealing with. The number of entitlements the employee has and the nature of their employment will impact on how you handle the situation. It's important to stay informed throughout the illness to keep the balance between managing the best treatment of the employee and looking after the business."