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It's OK to call in sick

Officials warn against possibly spreading germs at work

Officials warn against possibly spreading germs at work

October 30, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

Every office has one: The unfortunate soul who spends the shift continually sneezing, and coughing into a tissue - or, worse, in his bare hands - at his desk. This is the same guy you hope has not recently borrowed your stapler, used your telephone or touched your keyboard.

Local health officials said this is the guy who probably should have called in sick.

When it comes to avoiding workplace illnesses, hand sanitizer isn't the only line of defense. Some of the burden goes to the ones doing the coughing and sneezing.

"We don't advise that people come into work when they're not feeling well," said Rod MacRae, spokesman for the Washington County Health Department.

It sounds rather obvious: If you're sick, don't come into work. But the growing number of people bringing their coughing, red-nosed, tissue-toting selves to work when they should be home has prompted doctors, occupational therapists and workplace researchers to coin the term "presenteeism" (the opposite of "absenteeism") for those who come into work when they're not feeling well.

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In the end, researchers and health experts say presenteeism is bad for business.

"Everybody's heard about absenteeism, but how many people are working when they are not feeling good? It's an economics issue. It's a health safety issue. It covers all facets," said Dr. Mark Roberts, board member for the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, a Chicago-based trade group for doctors who specialize in occupational medicine.

According to a 2004 Cornell University study, presenteeism resulted in notable on-the-job productivity losses. Allergies, for example, cost businesses $271 per employee annually. The study also looked at other ailments such as headaches. The study analyzed information from a database of about 375,000 employees and combined the data with findings from five published productivity surveys.

There are other reasons why sick people should just stay at home. Not only do they risk spreading their germs to fellow co-workers, they also make it harder to get well, MacRae said.

It also is rude.

"It is definitely rude," said P.M. Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor who's authored several books on politeness. Forni most recently wrote "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct."

Forni also co-founded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project in 1997. The Civility Project assesses the role of civility, manners and politeness in contemporary society.

"First of all, I think that we have to acknowledge that things have changed," Forni said. "About two generations ago, it used to be that you had to show your loyalty to the company by showing up to work when you're sick. But, now it's better for you not to come at all."

Generally, if you have a fever, it's a good sign that you should probably call in sick to work, said Kathy Morrisey, director of infection control at Washington County Hospital.

"You're sick enough to stay at home from work," Morrisey said. "That's an indication that whatever it is might be contagious."

MacRae said heavy coughing and sneezing are other tell-tale signs.

But sometimes, coming to work sick is unavoidable. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, 43 percent of all private-sector workers in the U.S. did not have paid sick leave as of March 2006. There are no federal legal requirements that force employers to offer paid sick leave.

Morrisey said if you feel you must go into work, the use of hand sanitizers and frequently washing your hands are the best options to prevent the spread of work germs.

"If you're sharing a work space with someone who is sick, you would hope they would wipe everything down when they are done," Morrisey said.




How to avoid germs at work



Local health officials and experts on workplace etiquette weigh in on avoiding germs, politely:

Avoid shaking hands, said Rod MacRae, spokesman for the Washington County Health Department. Kathy Morrisey, director of infection control at Washington County Hospital, recommends avoiding communal candy dishes.

Keep pocketbooks and purses off the floor, especially in bathrooms. "Just think about it," Morrisey said. "All those germs you'd pick up, then you go home and place your pocketbook on the kitchen counter."

When dealing with a co-worker oblivious to his or her germ spreading, be polite. "Ask, 'Would you like a tissue?'" said P.M. Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor who wrote "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct." "Blow your nose and stop sniffling - that's direct, but not what you'd want to say."

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