HEALTHY LIVING

It's Cold And Flu Season: Are You Too Sick To Go To Work?

11/15/2012 08:28 am ET | Updated Nov 16, 2012

In today's workplaces, a day off is a true luxury. With mile-long to-do lists and a frighteningly-high number of un- or under-employed hopefuls ready to take their places, more and more people are choosing not to take time off -- even when they are sick with a cold or the flu.

A 2011 survey from Career Builder found that 72 percent of people go to work sick. This year, a survey from Staples found that number may be even closer to 80 percent.

So how do you know when you're too sick to report for duty or not sick enough to call out?

At one time or another, most of us have probably felt like being present in the office was absolutely necessary, no matter the color of that mucus. Bloomberg reports:

Perhaps you feel you're indispensable, or that taking some time off will mean coming back to even more work. Or perhaps you're in a situation where you literally can't afford to miss a day or two at the office.

But showing up when you're feeling lousy, a phenomenon known as presenteeism, can actually hurt your employer. Lower-than-normal, cold-medicine-fueled productivity levels can actually cost employers more than it would if you just took a sick day, WebMD reported.

In New York, One Medical's Natasha Withers, D.O., says "everybody feels like they need to go to work" and has trouble admitting it when it's time to rest. "I spend a lot of time convincing them to stay home," she tells HuffPost. "I even offer doctor's letters, to prove that they need to take this time to recover."

Doctors orders aren't always enough, however. "When you're deciding whether or not to stay home, put it into the big picture," suggests Jennifer Collins, M.D., an Assistant Professor of Allergy and Immunology at The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. Whether you feel guilty about leaving your work to others or overwhelmed by what would be waiting for you when you get back, ask yourself: Would you be a danger to others? Is your judgment impaired? Are you thinking clearly? Is your lack of productivity going to hurt the company? And do you think you're contagious?

In fact, greater than the cost to employers may be the likelihood of transmitting germs. If it's absolutely imperative that you go to the office, "the most important thing is to prevent spread," says Collins.

"The flu virus is transmitted through droplets from the nose or mouth," says Withers. "Anytime you're coughing or sneezing or even talking you could potentially spread the virus."

As such, the working sick leave behind a trail of germs on shared surfaces like water fountains and refrigerator door handles, making it easy for a case of the sniffles -- or worse -- to circulate among co-workers.

Collins recommends what she calls the "vampire sneeze," where you sneeze into the crook of the elbow rather than into your hand, which you'll later use to touch communal surfaces or shake hands. "Wipe down areas, make sure you're washing your hands frequently," she adds. "Viruses can live on hard surfaces hours after you're gone."

Not to mention, we don't do a great job cleaning them. In fact, about half of all employees surveyed by Staples clean their desks once a week or less, Everyday Health reported.

To be extra courteous, consider covering your hand with a sleeve when you hold on while riding public transportation or when pressing the button in the elevator, says Collins.

If you're on the receiving end of potential germs, "regular handwashing is the best defense we have," she says. Anti-bacterial gels are a good option when a sink isn't available. And as much as possible, try to avoid touching your face, which provides a direct path for germs on your hands to get into your nose and mouth.

Germs may also be lurking on things like cell phones -- give them a wipe with an alcohol pad regularly, says Collins. And both doctors recommend getting a flu shot for the best protection. "The flu vaccine takes about a week or two to work," says Withers, "so if you see a sick coworker, it won't protect you in that moment, but it may remind you to get [the shot]."

Some are more strongly urged to get vaccinated this season, including people with chronic medical conditions like asthma and diabetes, pregnant women and people over 65, according to the CDC. "If you have the flu and know that your coworkers are in one of those categories, be extra cautious," says Withers about deciding to go into the office.

Determining if your symptoms are indicative of a cold or the flu may help you make the decision. A cold typically starts gradually, whereas the flu can hit in a matter of hours. Colds usually occur earlier in the fall and winter, while the flu peaks around February. And the flu is often (but not always) accompanied by a fever. "You should certainly stay home if you have a fever greater than 100.3," says Collins.

Colds are most contagious at the onset, when you first start to notice that hint of a sore throat, says Collins, making it important to stay home early on. The flu, on the other hand, starts suddenly, and is contagious for the next four or five days after symptoms start, she says. Both can be contagious up to seven days, adds Withers, the typical length of time it takes any virus to fully run its course.

You'll also want to consider the effects of any medications you might take to quell your symptoms. Some cold medicines can make you drowsy; others can make you feel "a little hyperactive" or faint, says Collins, all of which could impact your productivity and safety on the job.

Depending on your field -- and your boss -- you might have the option to work from home. You'll reduce the spread of germs while still checking things off the to-do list, all from the comfort of your PJs. "Telecommuting is a really good option if you have something to do but can't work a whole day, or know you're just not going to be productive," says Collins. "You can work a little, nap, then wake up and do a little more work."

Just don't try to do too much, too soon. "[Working from home is] definitely a better option so you're not spreading the virus to other people," says Withers, "but your body needs time to heal and rest. If you're trying to push yourself, it's going to take a lot longer to get better."

At the end of the day, your decision to go to work sick or not may simply come down to the Golden Rule, says Collins. "If you saw a person coming into work sick, would you want to be around them?"

How do you decide when you're too sick to go to work? Let us know in the comments!

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