Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto
By Anne Fisher
October 24, 2015

With flu season upon us, your employer may be offering free shots and sending out mass emails reminding everyone not to spread their germs around at work.

That’s nice, but an unscientific Fortune poll of managers at a couple dozen big companies turned up no one — no one — who has figured out an effective way to make cold-and-flu sufferers stay home.

“There would have to be consequences, like docking someone a vacation day for every day they show up sick,” said one boss who asked for anonymity, hastening to add, “Of course, we don’t do that.”

So, even though 88% of workers say they encourage ailing colleagues to keep away, about 60% admit they personally still come in to the office, according to a new survey of 1,500 mostly-white-collar employees by Staples Advantage. The biggest reason, cited by 58%, is that there “is too much going on at work to take a sick day.” That’s a big jump from the 30% minority who said the same in 2012.

The problem is most acute among leaders who, in theory at least, are supposed to be setting an example for the troops. One in three managers say they feel pressure from higher-ups to come in whether they’re ill or not, compared to only 19% of non-managers. Moreover, 40% of bosses think that showing up no matter how awful they feel “shows extra initiative,” versus only about a quarter of employees who think so.

One thing that’s a little weird here is that most people suspect such heroics are wasted. Two-thirds (66%) of all employees surveyed, including managers, say that presenteeism — that is, sitting at one’s desk but feeling too rotten to get much done — is “worse for a business” than not coming in at all. That’s a lot more than last year, when only 31% agreed. Yet the allure of face time (and not via Skype) persists.

Some employees with contagious conditions, including a disquieting number in the food industry, report for work anyway because they need the money. Almost half (48%) in a CareerBuilder poll of more than 5,000 full-time workers say they can’t afford to miss even one day’s pay — up from 38% who said the same thing last year.

The study notes that this varies greatly by age. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of workers ages 18 to 24 say they come to work sick for financial reasons, versus 44% of employees ages 35 to 44, and 32% who are 55 or older.

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