The scratchy throat. The achy joints. The stuffy nose.
It’s hard to ignore the symptoms of cold and flu — but that doesn’t stop us from trying.
We show up to work and nurse a headache all day. We cough until, at last, we’re begged by our coworkers to take our germs home already.
Whether sick workers show up because there’s a crucial meeting, they fear being punished, replaced, or fired, or because they’re hourly workers who need the money, they do real harm by spreading their illnesses to everyone else in their vicinity.
Dr. Lee Norman, the chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Hospital, acknowledges that people “want to demonstrate to their bosses and coworkers that they have a strong work ethic, so a lot of them suck it up and go to work.”
“It might be a noble idea,” Norman told Healthline, but “it doesn’t work well for containing the spread of diseases.”
In fact, Norman says, there may be no place worse than an office environment for containing germs. There’s little air circulation and, in most cases, outside windows can’t be opened.
“People are in close proximity, and it’s just kind of a perfect setup for the spread of disease,” he says.
What’s so bad about offices?
Norman says that this time of year is ripe for respiratory viruses like cold and flu, which are spread primarily via coughing and sneezing.
But even if a sneeze from Mary in Accounting doesn’t land right in your face, “it’ll settle down on to a surface and be contagious from that perspective. Viruses live on the surface of things for a long time, and it’s easy to pick something up,” says Norman.
Anything people are touching presents the greatest danger of virus transfer, Norman says, but in office settings it seems the number of such items is a lot.
Copy machines, door handles, keyboards, phones, light switches, elevator buttons, vending machines, microwaves, and conference room tables are all breeding grounds for germs.
Says Norman, “Hands are the things that carry from one person to the next. People mop up their runny nose, then don’t wash their hands. Then they take the half-and-half out of the refrigerator,” and the next thing you know, half the office has been felled by the same lingering cough.
- Always: 32 percent
- Sometimes: 47 percent
- Never: 21 percent
A poll of Healthline readers showed people are split over whether to come to work when they're sick.
In the online survey of 119 people done last week, about a third said they always come to work sick.
Almost half said they sometimes come in, while slightly more than 20 percent said they never come in.
’Tis the season
January through March are typically the prime months for cold and flu.
That’s because the cold weather forces people indoors, and the period following the holiday season is notorious for creating illness in children (and, in turn, the parents of those children).
This year’s strain of flu is set to be a doozy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Ten states — in particular, those on both coasts — have already seen spikes, and the CDC predicts it will only get worse.
The observations and data collected so far this year by Lisa-Marie Gustafson, a human resources manager at aerospace company Hexcel, certainly backs the claim that this time of year is ripe for employee illnesses.
“We are definitely seeing that our delivery is well below where it should be,” she told Healthline.
Speaking on behalf of the Society of Human Resource Management, Gustafson says, “It’s not just loss of employees’ time, it absolutely is loss of real dollars.”
Gustafson says that in order to stem the tide of sick workers, she’s had to have “some hard conversations” with employees who insist on coming to work while ill, because those who haven’t stayed home have affected those around them.
“Especially those who work in close team environments, it’s more than just one person that’s going out on illness,” she says.
Like many employers, Hexcel offers working from home as an option for office-based employees who are feeling unwell.
Technology like email, video conferencing, and messaging apps have expanded the ability of workers to keep their germs at home.
But what about those in the manufacturing and retail sectors? Most part-time and hourly employees don’t have the option of working from home when they’re not feeling well, because not showing up means not making money.
Current U.S. law does not require employers to provide paid sick days. In fact, the law does not even protect workers from being fired when they miss work due to health reasons, as viral star Lamar Austin proved earlier this month. He was sacked for choosing to stay with his wife — instead of working at his security guard job — while she gave birth to their fourth child.
President Obama proposed a law in 2015 that called for mandating seven days of paid sick time a year for all workers, but Congress declined to pursue the legislation. However, 23 cities and states have passed laws requiring paid sick time for part-time workers, according to the nonprofit organization Workplace Fairness.
San Francisco passed a paid sick leave law in 2007. Since then, Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Washington; New York, and the state of Connecticut, among others, have followed suit.
Businesses have argued that these types of laws could lead to price hikes or negatively impact their overall hiring, but the New York law was studied last year by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which found it to be a “nonevent.”
The authors of the report, economist Eileen Appelbaum, Ph.D., and sociologist Ruth Milkman, Ph.D., reported that the law had little business impact, saying, “The vast majority of employers were able to adjust quite easily,” and “85 percent reported that the new law had no effect on their overall business costs.”
Staying home (or, if possible, working from home) while under the weather benefits not only workers’ health, the health of their fellow employees, and the overall productivity of employers, it also benefits all the people with whom the sick worker would be interacting. That includes customers, clients, and the already immune deficient.
“There’s a whole frail segment of the population: older people, babies, people with immune deficiencies or underlying chronic illnesses, people with acute leukemia, people who are going through or just coming off of chemotherapy,” said Norman. “What might be a minor illness to you and me can be a life-threatening illness to somebody like that.”
Sucking it up
According to Norman, “A cornerstone of public health is to voluntarily sequester oneself away so as to protect those around them.”
“It’s a blinding flash of the obvious,” he said.
So why do people persist in coming into work when they’re ill?
A recent study from global public health and safety organization NSF reveals that 25 percent of the U.S. workers the group surveyed said their boss expects them to come in no matter what.
The survey also found that 42 percent of workers “have deadlines or are afraid they will have too much work to make up if they take a sick day,” and 37 percent said they can’t afford to take the time off.
The survey also showed that men are twice as likely as women to tough it out when they’re not feeling well.
In addition, two-thirds of those surveyed by NSF considered sick coworkers to be hard workers, while 16 percent reported they felt their ill colleagues didn’t care about their coworkers’ well-being.
CEPR conducted a study of 22 other countries’ sick leave policies and found that in Europe, most workers are guaranteed days off for illness, paid for either by employers (Netherlands, Switzerland, and United Kingdom), the government (France, Ireland, and Italy), or a combination of both (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, and Sweden).
Gustafson, whose company has offices throughout Europe, describes that continent’s sick-time policies as “far more robust,” but says about U.S. sick policies, “We’re getting there.”
Flu shots and common sense
If human resources departments, and public health advocates can’t convince workers to stay at home or work from home while sick, what are the other options?
One way Gustafson’s company is trying to combat the spread of flu is by offering free flu shots to all employees.
So far, she says, “It seems like in those who got the flu shot, we’re not seeing the same amount of illness.”
Her company doesn’t mandate flu shots, but the University of Kansas does. It’s a requirement for the hospital’s 10,000 employees.
“There’s no question that the best way to reduce the burden of influenza is by influenza vaccine, and I’m very much a proponent,” Norman said.
No one is truly immune from flu or other viruses, but getting a flu shot can shorten the course of flu as well, says Norman.
In fact, the doctor says that he’s been immunized for 43 years running and has never had the flu. And according to the CDC, it's not too late to get a flu shot this year.
The best defense
In addition to preventive measures like getting a flu shot, the NSF says to take defensive steps such as eating healthily and taking vitamins.
Norman recommends humidifying the air and getting a good night’s rest. He also recommends frequent hand washing or hand sanitizing.
“If I’ve been exposed to something, I should not assume I don’t have it on me. I should wash my hands," he says.
- Cough and sneeze into a tissue.
- Wash your hands often.
- Stay out of communal areas.
- Wear a mask.
If you suspect you're coming down with something but you absolutely must report to work, make sure you’re doing all you can to avoid spreading your germs to others.
Cough and sneeze into a tissue, or at least into the crook of your arm instead of your hands.
Wash your hands frequently.
Don’t go into communal areas, and, if necessary, wear a mask.
As for employers who expect their employees to show up no matter what, they’re only hurting themselves in the long run.
“Your employees are your greatest competitive advantage,” Gustafson says. “If they are ill, or if they feel like, ‘I’m just another person,’ that hurts your bottom line. We want you to stay home and take care of yourself.”