Life Wellbeing Skipping work is nothing to sneeze at when you’re sick, sick, sick

Skipping work is nothing to sneeze at when you’re sick, sick, sick

You're not a hero for going to work sick
You're not a hero for going to work sick Photo: Getty
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Hey, hero! Heading off to work with a head full of snot? Looking to soldier on for the sake of the team, and to look good for the boss?

Here are the numbers: a sneeze leaves your nose at up to 320 kilometres per hour; up to 40,000 virally-loaded droplets are expelled and travel for up to eight metres; many of those droplets can stay suspended for up to 10 minutes.

A cough isn’t as powerful – 50kph and 3000 droplets — but still impressive. Those droplets can contain 200 million individual virus particles.

These figures, taken from recent studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and a (gross) coughing lab at MIT, show the killing power of a sneeze is far greater than previously thought.

In an open-plan office, two or three sneezes and you — a one-person hit squad — have potentially infected everybody in the room. Plus, you’ve jetted several loads of micro-mucous into the ceiling ventilation system. So, you’re well on the way to bringing down the entire floor.

Yet the irony is, you’ve turned up to the office to keep the place going. Or more honestly, for the sake of appearances — because you’re just as likely to take a sick day on the Friday before Australia Day or to recover from a hangover after a day at the Melbourne Cup.

One study found that Australians are more likely to take a sick day than their UK counterparts. And why not? And Mondays and Fridays are apparently the most popular days to fall ill. The psychology of taking a sick day is clearly… sick.

The open plan office is playing a hand in this. A study of more than 2,400 workers in Denmark found that as the number of people working in a single room went up, the number of employees who took sick leave also increased. Workers who shared an office with a colleague took an average of 50 per cent more sick leave than those who had an office to themselves. In open plan, an average of 62 per cent more sick days were taken.

What do the OHS people recommend? They seem to have it both ways, offering advice on how to minimise infecting your workmates – with an almost grudge-like suggestion of taking your pox home. According to Health and Safety Handbook, there are seven steps to containing infection, allowing workers to update their spread sheets and gargle on the phone to customers.

  1. Wash hands regularly throughout the day, especially before and after eating and going to the bathroom.
  2. Limit personal contact with other people in the workplace, such as handshaking.
  3. Keep a reasonable distance from unwell people (ideally, unwell people will not be at the workplace but in the case that they are).
  4. Use tissues and avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth. Regularly disinfect shared surfaces, EG photocopiers.
  5. Obtain a flu vaccination.
  6. Go home if feeling unwell.

The problem with number 6 is, you can feel okay and still be as deadly as Typhoid Mary.

The gurus at Workplace OHS advise companies to “provide face masks to employees who have to deal with people who may have the flu”; and suggest that workers “adopt the habit of coughing/sneezing into an elbow instead of the hands. Then use a disposable tissue instead of a cloth handkerchief”.

Workplace OHS also advises: “Regularly clean all keyboards, phones, door handles, stair railings, lift buttons, photocopiers, printers, and anything else at the workplace that many employees have to touch. For those items typically used by only one employee (EG keyboards and phones), encourage employees to clean them and provide them with cleaning equipment, otherwise ensure they become specific tasks for the general workplace cleaners”.

Finally, they suggest: “Employees who display the symptoms of contagious flu (see below – “The Difference Between Colds and Flu”) at work should be advised to stay at home for at least 36 hours or until their symptoms diminish.

The inference there is if it’s just a cold, maybe hang in there. Just like that cloud of micron nose juice.

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