Staying home when you’re ill can be a bummer.
But, going to work is a whole lot dumber!
With so much in the news about Ebola and other dangerous viruses and bacterial infections, we need to remind ourselves that most people are likelier to be catching the common cold or coming down with the current seasonal flu bug. Together, these viruses cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars each year in lost wages, business profits and healthcare costs. Even worse, they cause inconvenience, suffering and in rare cases the flu can result in life-threatening scenarios. Both are highly contagious airborne viruses that can be transmitted if someone who is infected sneezes or coughs on or near you, or you touch something that the infected person has touched or shake hands with him or her and then — before washing your hands — you touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
In these ways, the average adult catches two to four colds each year. If you’re among these statistics, you’ll be the most contagious during the first few days, with the chance of spreading your cold diminishing over a week’s time. You’ll probably be miserable, as well, for the first few days, with itchy eyes, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, coughing and generally feeling under the weather — all of which characterize the common cold.
Influenza, or the flu as it’s called, is different. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, anywhere from five to 20% of the U.S. population contracts the seasonal flu virus. Thus, becoming ill with the flu is less common than catching a cold; that trend might be attributed in part to flu vaccines. Another difference is that the flu tends to come on fast, usually “hitting like a ton of bricks” as some of those afflicted have described it. The symptoms are similar to those of a cold, but more plentiful and severe, including body aches, exhaustion, weakness and a fever, which can climb quite high. The flu can also be devastating to the very young, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses and compromised immune systems. The seasonal flu has been known to develop into lower respiratory infections such bronchitis and pneumonia. Unlike a cold, the flu can really lay you low.
Although there are over-the-counter cold and flu medications, they simply suppress the symptoms temporarily, and that doesn’t necessarily prevent you from being contagious. Moreover, many medications can make you drowsy and less focused.
Don’t Roam, Stay Home
There are good reasons to stay home when you’re ill:
- Going to work, school, shopping or anywhere outside your home has the potential to put everyone with whom you come into contact at risk of contracting your virus; that includes not only your coworkers but also those you encounter on your way to and from work, people in restaurants, shops, etc. That will result in your contributing to spreading the virus far and wide and adding to those staggering statistics that impact people’s lives, businesses and the economy.
- You will probably not do your best work when you are feeling ill.
- Your recovery time could increase the more you exert yourself, and can result in a relapse.
A Question of Etiquette, Ethics and Empathy
Some people often drag themselves to work when ill because they have a strong work ethic and loyalty to their companies or bosses. Such professionals often have the misguided notion that they are doing right by their coworkers by not placing an extra burden on them.
Other times, they have a deadline to meet or they’ve already taken off too much time for vacation or personal issues.
But showing up at work and exposing one’s coworkers to a virus that can set them back is certainly not showing consideration, and could be viewed as having a lack of empathy. And, giving someone your cold is definitely not a sign of good etiquette. And, finally, there is an ethical question in putting your team, coworkers, manager, clients and other business associates at risk of becoming ill.
Presenteeism versus Absenteeism
Generally speaking, “presenteeism” is the opposite of absenteeism. The term applies to those who chronically show up at work when they are ill or who are always, or usually, present but not necessarily productive. The causes of presenteeism include — but are not limited to — being focused on getting one’s work completed under any circumstances, determination to have perfect attendance, fear of lost wages or even losing one’s job and worry that there will be retribution or loss of respect from one’s manager or coworkers. Ironically, as a Harvard Business Review article reports, costs to employers for presenteeism might outweigh the costs of absenteeism. So whether you’re contagious or not, when you’re ill your productivity generally is far less than when you are well; and that can affect your employer’s bottom line and impact the morale of your coworkers.
If You Must Go To Work When Ill
If you are in a situation where you are not paid if you do not show up for work, if your job is at risk if you are absent, or when you are the owner or one of few employees of a small business you must weigh your situation and your options. In the event that you decide you must go to work when you are not feeling well, do your best to feel better and go armed with a supply of facial tissues to catch your sneezes and coughs and hand sanitizer to apply every time you wash your hands, which should be performed frequently throughout the day. Limit your exposure to others as much as possible (remember not to touch the faucet with your bare hands after washing, but instead use a paper towel or tissue). Avoid shaking hands. You might even consider face masks, which can reduce the spread of germs. Talk to your doctor or a nurse about the best approaches. And, when you’re at home get as much rest and sleep as possible.
Employer Contingency Plans
While the seasonal flu can cost the economy billions of dollars each year, a worldwide epidemic — or pandemic — can destroy many more lives and economies. This differs from seasonal flu viruses that have been around for years, allowing people to develop a level of resistance to them and the medical community to develop vaccines to prevent the comparatively slight variations in seasonal flu strains, or at least lessen their symptoms.
However, with a new virus — such as H1N1, which was a new strain of flu in 2009 that caused a pandemic — people have not had a chance to develop immunity nor has there been time to develop a vaccine. Therefore, businesses large and small must prepare for a situation in which a significant number of their employees become too sick to work, or are quarantined. This year H1N1 returned as a regular flu strain because now we have a vaccine. And, the World Health Organization (WHO) says, “Ebola vaccine testing could start in the next few weeks,” according to a report by CNN.
Your Personal Contingency Plan
Just as your employer certainly has a contingency plan (sometimes called a “disaster recovery” or “business continuity” plan), you should have your own personal plan should you become ill. Here are some items to address:
- Ask your manager if your computer can be set up to allow you to work from home in an emergency situation, including becoming ill during a busy time.
- Ensure that your work can be handled by more than one backup on your team in the event of your unplanned absence.
- Get your seasonal flu vaccine via shot or nasal spray.
- Make contingency plans for child and pet care in case you become too ill to take care of them temporarily.
- If you don’t feel well, be prepared to stay home until you recover. Stock up boxes of tissues, some good books and DVDs, cough drops, tea and chicken soup.
To help in the prevention of illness, take care of your general health. See your doctor(s) and dentist regularly for preventative care, and visit them before problems get out of hand. Talk to your doctor about keeping current with all your vaccines (tetanus, pneumonia, shingles, etc.) to keep your immune system in good working order. Get enough sleep, eat wisely and exercise.
The regular flu season is just around the corner. If you come down with it, and if you won’t be docked or sacked for not showing up at work, then for Pete’s — and everyone else’s — sake, stay home!
Until next time,