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Sick at work? Best prescription might be ‘stay home’

The Idaho Statesman

I´m sick, but not desperately so. I have the whole merry scenario of a cold, complete with runny nose, ears filled with cotton and a strong urge to hibernate under a fluffy comforter.

Instead of calling in sick, however, I´m in the office – sharing my virus with colleagues, who will probably return the favor in the next couple of weeks.

Sound familiar?

How sick am I?
To stay home or to struggle into work, hacking and sneezing: It´s a decision that many workers will have to make at least once this year. According to a study on colds that was published last year in the Archives of Internal Medicine, there are about 500 million colds each year in the United States annually. (Because we have 281 million people in the country according to the latest U.S. Census, that´s a lot more colds than folks.)

Missed work because of colds costs businesses $20 billion annually, according to the cold study, which was done by researchers at the University of Michigan Health System. Those numbers didn´t count the countless people made miserable from other respiratory unpleasantries, such as bronchitis or influenza.

Stay home. Go in. Often, a sick employee looks at his or her individual circumstances.

Having available a cache of sick days may be the determining factor, or whether the person is self-employed, or provides a service that is hard to duplicate by someone else.

Got a fever, stay home
Dr. Deborah Plate is a family physician at Akron General Medical Center. If she calls in sick, that affects a lot of people. If she´s mildly sick with a cold, Plate said, she will soldier on. If she runs a fever, however, she always stays home.

“If you have a fever, you should not be at work,” she said, with emphasis.

When a person doesn´t have a “this makes it totally legitimate for me to call in sick” fever, however, it can be harder to figure out what to do.

“You need to use good, common sense,” Plate said, adding that her physician colleagues at the West Side Family Practice share the same view. “Good common sense is important.”

One business expert believes that in the long run, it´s probably common sense for an employer to encourage a worker who has a respiratory virus to stay home, even though that will inevitably entail a short-term cost.

When symptoms begin
Jim Collison, president of the Employers of America, argues in his Web-based newsletter that it is economically better for one employee who has a cold or flu to stay home for the first 24 to 48 hours when he or she first starts to experience symptoms.

Collison, based in Mason City, Iowa, estimated that although the absence of an employee can run $500 a day in lost productivity, replacement and related expenses, if that sick employee comes in and infects others, there are potentially much greater losses to be had.

The federal Centers for Disease Control recommends that workers who have the flu stay home. However, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a cold and flu; generally, a person experiences more severe symptoms with the flu, including fever, body aches, extreme tiredness and dry cough. If a person has a runny or stuffy nose, he or she is more likely to have a cold, rather than the flu.

A person is most contagious at the start of a respiratory illness.

Are you contagious?
“The thought is, you´re contagious … at least two, three or four days that you have the illness,” she said.

The period of contagion can last longer than most people might expect. For instance, if a person is still congested and blowing their nose after three to five days of having a cold, Plate said a person is still spreading germs every time he touches a keyboard or other shared items.

Tips to keep your workplace germ-free
Besides staying home, the best way to reduce the chance of infection in the workplace is to practice good health habits, such as hand-washing, which public health experts consider the No. 1 step people can take to prevent getting sick.

Wash hands
Frequent hand washing – washing hands for at least 10 to 15 seconds – is a must for both the sick worker and co-workers, experts say.

Portable hand sanitizer is an option if soap and water aren´t always available.

Use a tissue
A sick worker should always sneeze or cough into a tissue, rather than into a handkerchief or his or her hand. If a tissue isn´t available, sneeze or cough into the crook of the arm so that you´ll share fewer germs.

Clean work space
Collison also suggested that workers should be provided with materials to easily clean their keyboards, phones and doorknobs, a practice supported by public health physicians.

Cotton or disposable tissues/rags saturated with 70 percent isopropyl alcohol can be used as a cheap, effective way to sanitize commonly used equipment. Another alternative is to spray commonly used items with an antibacterial spray such as Lysol. Note: Have one of the well employees make the trip to the store.

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