Recently, I considered myself a hero at the office. I showed up for work even though my head was so congested I couldn't breathe through my nose. To eat, I had to chew with my mouth open, gasping for air between bites. And my sinuses were so blocked up that when I spoke it sounded like my voice was emanating from somewhere in the middle of my back. I excused myself from meetings so I could go to the bathroom and blow my nose for several minutes, and I declined to shake hands with people. The people around me surely thought, "This guy is a prince. Why isn't everyone as conscientious and diligent as he?"
Or maybe they thought, "This guy is a disaster. Why isn't he more considerate?" After all, that's what I think when I have a co-worker sitting near me who launches into a coughing fit every ten minutes, or who sits in meetings bleary-eyed, their mountain of used tissues growing higher by the minute. I think, "Stay twenty feet away at all times. Be sure to wash your hands after this meeting, and possibly your pen as well. Have this conference room sprayed with disinfectant and cordoned off for forty-eight hours."
I've been both the hater and the hated in this scenario, and it leads me to the conclusion that, putting germs aside for a moment, there is a very good reason to stay home from work when your cold or flu symptoms are raging: You're driving everyone crazy, to the point where they're actually thinking about washing their BlackBerrys. It's distracting especially in a cube farm, to have a co-worker who coughs as loud as a braying ass while you're trying to talk on the phone or concentrate on your work. And it's incredibly annoying when someone is blowing their nose every two or three minutes, all day long.
But the fact that they might pass this condition on to others is really the bigger problem with sickness in the workplace. Consider this nugget of information from a Mayo Clinic report: "A cold virus ... can spread through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks." That's right: Talks. The danger in using shared objects (including, perhaps, an elevator) is also cited in the study: "Touch your eyes, nose or mouth after such contact or exposure, and you're likely to 'catch' a cold."
So why do we come to work when we have awful symptoms, which never seem so awful when we're the one who has them? Maybe it's because we like to think that it's a contained problem which couldn't possibly have an effect on anyone else, and is therefore hardly worth mentioning--like a blister, perhaps, or constipation. But it may or may not be contained, and knowing how to distinguish that can make the difference in some innocent bystander's well-being.
The National Institutes of Health says that people are most contagious for the first two to three days of a cold, and usually not contagious at all by days seven to 10. So your co-worker who has been blowing their nose for over a week is not the pariah you may think, and when they say, "I'm not contagious!" it actually may be true. The real danger, on the other hand, is the co-worker who feels fine but isn't. "Studies show that, if you contract a cold, you can transmit it to others one or two days before your symptoms appear," the Columbia University Health Services reports. "Colds are most contagious two to four days after original exposure (whether or not symptoms have developed), when there is plenty of the virus present in nasal secretions." And with no symptoms, your odds of spotting that germ factory are slim to none.
It's hard to tell if you're sick if you don't feel sick, but if your child or partner is sick as a dog at home, you may want to telecommute for a day or two if you can. And what's really key is for the person with the virus to react at the first sign of symptoms, even though, as I have often said myself, they "don't feel that bad." An irritated nose or scratchy throat, followed by sneezing, are the first signs of a cold, and that's the time for action. Rather, it's time for inaction.
The flu virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is spread in much the same way as a cold, and also has early symptoms--including fatigue, sore throat and body aches. As the CDC uses terms like "droplet spread" in their reports, I will skip over a few of their gross specifics here; just know that droplets can be "propelled" up to three feet. The CDC also states that a flu virus can be hard to detect at that crucial point. "Most healthy adults may be able to infect others from one day prior to becoming sick and for five days after they first develop symptoms." Again, there's not much you can do if you have no idea you're sick, but as soon as you do know--it's time to do the right thing and quarantine yourself at home with a warm blanket and a stack of bad movies.
How many times have you called in to work claiming to be sick when you were not? Shame on you. But at least you are practiced at how it's done, in the legitimate sense. You pick up the phone and dial the number, or you send an email to deliver the news that you won't be coming in. By doing that, you're actually helping. Now you're a real hero.
About the Author
Ken DuBois is a marketing guru by day and a freelance writer by night. He has written film reviews for Reel.com, and worked for a time as a theater critic. He is passionate about working out: When he's not in the pool, he's hiking, biking, walking and, weather permitting, working on his backhand.