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January 21, 2002
Working While Sick: Not Smart
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’t be brave. Going to work sick endangers the health of co-workers and can even impact businesses' bottom lines, researchers and physicians tell the Hearald-Sun of Durham, N.C.

"People who drag themselves to work when they're ailing and end up wiping out their co-workers as well are not doing anyone any favors," said Sean Sullivan, chief executive of the Institute for Health and Productivity Management in Afton, Va.

Of course, it's not that sick employees intend to spread their germs around. Employees choose to brave their illnesses and work for reasons related to responsibility, perception, and finances, said David Weber, a professor of epidemiology and pediatric medicine at UNC.

Some employees enjoy their jobs and feel they owe it to their employer to work as much as possible, Weber told the Herald-Sun. Other employees feel their supervisor may take punitive action against them if they're not present.

A third group of employees can't afford to stay home, either because they have no paid sick leave or because they've used it already, he said.

While many employees feel they must work while they're sick, corporate environments are beginning to recognize that sick workers need to stay home and recuperate, said Frank Scanlan, spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

"A certain degree of martyrdom exists there," Scanlan said. "Individuals feel when they're sick, that they need to go to work. But there's also an increasing awareness now of what that does to the overall work force."

Most companies would rather employees use their sick leave and come back refreshed than come into work when they're only marginally productive, he said.

"If an individual goes home when he's sick, it's a two-day thing," he said. "If he goes to work, it might be two or three weeks before everyone around him is healthy again."

Employees who work with the public also should stay home while they're sneezing and coughing, said Larry Wu, a professor of clinical and family medicine at Duke University Medical Center.

It's only courteous to warn business contacts that you're sick so they can keep their distance and avoid shaking hands, Weber said.

"Illness is a continuous grade," he said. "Even if you're not very sick, it doesn't mean the person you're giving it to won't get much sicker."

The Herald-Sun says workers can take precautions not to infect their co-workers. Basic rules are to sneeze into a tissue or handkerchief and stay away from shared telephones.

Physicians warn that shaking hands easily can spread germs in a workplace setting. After every contact with someone's hand, employees should wash their own hands, Wu said.

"Research has shown that if you shake someone's hand and don't wash your hands, you're more likely to get their illness than if you kiss the person," he said.

To avoid spreading germs - and for one's own health - employees also should stay at home if their symptoms include a fever above 100 degrees, Weber said.

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