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When co-workers make you sick

Is half the workforce sneezing and wheezing? Use these tips to avoid contagion.

By Donna_Freedman Jan 11, 2013 11:48AM
Man with bullseyeA recent study from Cintas Corporation noted that 84% of employed U.S. adults have gone to work while sick. Almost half of them neither warn co-workers about their illnesses nor avoid physical contact that could lead to contagion.

Nice.

The result is often more sickness, which we're seeing right now in the form of seasonal influenza. An MSN Money article, "Flu outbreak is costing companies billions," reports that companies may spend up to $10.4 billion on hospitalization and outpatient visits.

Businesses take another hit, too, in the form of decreased productivity, as sick-but-ignoring-it workers struggle through their days.

Why do we do it? Because we're worried about job security and/or we have kids and need to save our sick days for when they get sick.

You can't make a coughing co-worker stay home. You can take control of your own health. A few basic tactics will help you avoid catching whatever's going around.

The Centers for Disease Control suggests these tips:

  • Get the flu vaccine. If you don't have health insurance, see "Find an affordable flu shot."
  • Keep your distance. Avoid close contact with a sick co-worker, friend or family member.
  • Use sanitizing wipes. Sharing a phone or computer with Typhoid Mary? Clean any common surfaces. It's also vital to…
  • Clean your hands. Wash them often with soap and water, or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Don't touch your face. You probably do this a lot more than you realize. Keep your hands away from eyes, nose and mouth -- these are entry points for viruses and germs.
  • Practice good health habits. Drink lots of fluids, eat well, get some exercise, and manage both personal and work-related stresses. Oh, and stop plinking around on Facebook until 1 a.m. -- sleep is important for overall health.

The Mayo Clinic website notes that wearing a surgical mask can help prevent contagion. In public, maybe, but you might feel silly wearing it at work, and fellow employees could be insulted. 

The real cost
If you're the one feeling under the weather right now, stay home if at all possible. Seriously.

It's understandable if you're afraid to call in sick. That was me, years ago, as a "permanent part-time" employee and single mother afraid to get on the wrong side of the supervisor. Maybe your job doesn't come with sick days (hi there, all you 20-hour-a-week retail workers!). Or maybe you're determined to preserve your sick days for when your kids come down with a bug.

But it takes longer to get better if you don't give yourself a break, and the sicker you get the more it will cost you, in two ways:

Literal cost.
You're too exhausted to cook so you pick up takeout for the family. You need extra tissues, OTC meds, juice. You may even wind up paying a doctor when your compromised immune system can't fight off an opportunistic bacterium.

Figurative cost.
Your quality of life heads south. Far south. And if you spread your cooties to co-workers, they will not thank you.

An ounce of prevention is frugal. It also beats being sick for an extra week when a day or two of rest might have made a difference.

More on MSN Money:

6Comments
Jan 11, 2013 4:04PM
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There are 5 people that work in the branch office.  I am one.  The Branch General Manager (boss) went to the doctor on Tuesday.  Was diagnosed with the flu on Tuesday.  She stayed home Wednesday and has been back in the office since Thursday.  I am VERY unhappy about that decision.  If I get sick or catch the flu, I AM taking off and staying home.  She is around here sneezing and coughing without covering her mouth, touching everything (but I have clorox wipes and hand sanitizer on my desk.)  I wipe down anything I see her touch: doorknobs, copy machine buttons, hole punch handle, stamp meter buttons.  I cannot afford to be sick.  I have another job that requires me to be around people.  How fair is that, that she has the flu, is still coming to work, and I have another job to go to!

Jan 11, 2013 3:38PM
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when I was younger I worked in a restaurant.  Many would come to work sick. Mainly because they were young college age people who lived paycheck to paycheck and push themselves.  Often most shifts were short anyway so if someone didn't show up the others were really screwed.  Because of this during flu season I avoid eating out.
Jan 13, 2013 5:21PM
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Many who would like to do so are faced with a difficult choice since they are not salaried workers and do not get paid sick leave. I used to work at a University that allowed its employees to donate their unused sick leave days to a pool for those that need it. But my current employer does not allow this. Needless to say, sometimes contract employees show up when they really should have stayed at home...
Jan 12, 2013 5:30PM
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I work in an administrative position in a major hospital, and we don't see the employee illnesses I hear about from other workplaces.. I get a free flu shot at work, the hospital provides hand gel for everyone and we use it, and if I am sick I am required to wear a mask. Any employer could insittute these three measures to make things better for all its employees..
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I used to work at a job where they provided sick leave.  The problem was, if you called in sick, they called it an occurrence.  If you get too many occurrences you get fired.  Now, why the frack would you give your employees sick leave for them to get in trouble if they use it?
Jan 11, 2013 3:41PM
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If you get this flu try to tuff it out.  If you have to see a doctor go to an urgent care center.  This flu will knock your immune system so far down you could get staff if admitted to a hospital.  It's is happening now with some of these cases.  There are no good antibiotics for this super staff going around!
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Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.

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