How To Handle Colds And Flu At Work

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By Alison Green

January is the season of coughing and sneezing co-workers, and in offices around the country, people are irately wondering why their contagious colleagues chose to come in to work and risk infecting other people. If you have a cold or flu this winter, give some thought to your office mates and make sure that you're not cavalierly spreading germs around your workplace. Here are seven steps that will help keep you from becoming your office's patient zero.

1. Stay home if you're contagious. You might be tempted to drag yourself into work to show that you're not felled by minor sicknesses, but this is no time to play the hero. No one else will want you there and most people will be actively annoyed that you've come in. Sure, you might not want to use up a sick day, especially if your employer puts them in the same pot as vacation days, but that's outweighed by other people's interest in not being exposed to your germs and getting sick themselves.

2. Don't come in hoping to be sent home. Some people make an appearance at work, hoping that their manager will spot their red nose and watery eyes and take pity on them, ordering them to go home to bed. If you're sick enough that you're hoping for this, you're sick enough to stay home in the first place and not risk infecting the people you work with.

3. If your employer doesn't give sick time or discourages you from using sick time for legitimate illnesses, consider advocating for a policy change. Point out that this practice results in employees coming to work sick and making other employees sick – as well as customers, if you work directly with them. And there's safety in numbers, so consider speaking up as a group.

4. If you must come in, take steps to quarantine yourself. If you're forced to come in to work because of a project that can't wait or by your employer's policies, be thoughtful about what you can do to avoid spreading germs to your co-workers. For instance, is there an empty office or other private area you can work from? If you already have your own office, can you stay inside with the door shut? In addition, make sure to limit your interactions with others, warn people not to come too close, wash your hands frequently and wipe down your keyboard, phone and workspace with disinfecting wipes. (Better yet, can you work from home? If you can work from somewhere without other people around, do.)

5. Be understanding of sick colleagues if they are forced by your employer's policies to come to work sick. It's tempting to shun or shame colleagues who are spreading germs around your workplace, but if they're there because your employer doesn't give them any choice, then remember that they aren't the culprit – your employer's policies are to blame. This is all the more reason to consider speaking up about the ramifications for your workplace's policies, like we talked about above. And be generous with your tissues.

6. If you're a manager, make it clear that you don't want sick people at work. Send people home if they come in obviously ill, don't penalize people for using sick days, and set a good example by staying home yourself when you're ill. If people see you dragging yourself in when you're sick, they'll assume that you expect them to do the same.

7. Consider getting a flu shot, if you can do so safely. Even if you don't mind risking the flu, you might have co-workers who are immunocompromised or who are around people who are. They'll be grateful if you take steps to avoid exposing them to germs that might be much more serious for them than they are for you.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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