Should you go to work with a cold during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Woman with headache to illustrate should you go to work with a cold

The powerful combination of colder weather and flu season means that many of us will definitely be feeling the sniffles before the Christmas break - so, should you go to work with a cold?

While we’ve done just about everything over the last two years to avoid Covid-19 infection, we’ve simultaneously managed to ward off any other infection too. Coming out of lockdown with a lower immune system, this means we’re much more likely to pick up a lurgy. 

It’s why there have already been discussions about whether Christmas parties are cancelled this year (opens in new tab) and even chat about whether schools are closing early (opens in new tab) like last year.

Should you go to work with a cold?

No, you shouldn’t go into work if you have a cold.

Originally, the three main symptoms of Covid-19 were a continuous cough, high temperature and a loss of taste/smell. However, new research on the Delta variant symptoms (opens in new tab) from the Zoe Symptom Study shows that infections are now more likely to present as similar to a cold. I.e. the classic sneezing, runny nose, sore throat and headache. 

So if you’re feeling under the weather, the first thing to do is take a PCR test. You also must self-isolate while waiting for the result to come through, advice from the NHS (opens in new tab) reads. While you may be convinced it’s just a cold, you’re still likely to be displaying symptoms resembling Covid-19. So, it’s better to be safe than sorry and find out if you actually have the virus.

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Much like the rules on sending a child to school with a cold (opens in new tab), if you test negative for Covid-19 then legally you can still go into the office. However, it’s unlikely that your colleagues would thank you for passing on a nasty cold just before the Christmas season. 

And with our immune systems lowered thanks to the long periods of lockdown, GP and Olbas (opens in new tab) expert Dr Roger Henderson says colds really are inevitable this year. 

“Colds and flu are caused by viruses that usually affect the nose, throat, ears and sinuses. The infections are contagious, transferable by tiny droplets and hand contact. And [they] are much more common during the winter months. This is partly because central heating dries out the normally moist nasal mucosa which defends against invading viruses.” 

Because there are “hundreds of different viruses that can cause a cold”, he says, it’s not possible to have a cure for them all. Normally, exposure wards off the common ones. 

“However, as many of us have not had as much exposure to normal colds and flu, there appears to be a spike in tougher, more aggressive forms of cold and flu-like viruses. These are so-called ‘super cold’ symptoms and include an extremely sore throat, a hacking cough and headaches.” 

Team of people working in an office

It's best to stay at home if you're not feeling well this year, Credit: Getty.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you feel you’re well enough to work, you may just work from home for the day. Especially if that's what you were doing over lockdown anyway. However, if you’re feeling really under the weather or can’t work from home, you’ll have to call in sick.

Who should work from home?

Everyone should work from home as of December 10, latest government guidance says.

Boris Johnson has approved Plan B for England. This includes:

  • People being asked to work from home if they can.
  • Face coverings are compulsory in most public indoor venues, such as cinemas, theatres and places of worship.
  • The NHS Covid Pass will become mandatory in some spaces, such as nightclubs.

Boris Johnson also said, "Everyone should test using a lateral flow device, particularly before entering a high-risk setting involving people you wouldn’t normally come into contact with, or when visiting a vulnerable person. Lateral flow devices remain free of charge and can be collected from local pharmacies."

Although lateral flow tests can be false positive (opens in new tab) or negative, this is very highly unlikely according to research from earlier this year. If you have symptoms, always get a PCR test instead.

How to call in sick for work

The first step to calling in sick is notifying your employer before the usual start time for work on the day you’re unwell, says Pranav Bhanot, litigation solicitor at Meaby & Co Solicitors (opens in new tab)

“If your employer has a sickness absence policy, the employee should follow this in terms of notification,” he adds. 

The process is normally as simple as emailing or messaging your manager, letting them know that you’re too unwell to work. It’s also best to give an estimate as to when you’ll be back to work. Plus, any other information that they’ll need to know for when you’re back.

But there’s no need to stress about providing evidence, Pranav says. “In terms of evidence, employees generally do not have to be bed bound to be off sick. Therefore, if an employee has a cold this may be sufficient reason to call in sick. Especially given the current pandemic." 

It’s only when you’ve taken a full week off work that you may have to worry. Legally, “an employee must provide an employer with a doctor’s ‘fit note’ if they are sick for more than 7 days. This is non-working days taken in a row,” our expert explains.