A weekly series in which our expert in all things everything solves life’s conundrums, big and small.  Got a problem that could use a no-nonsense perspective?

 

Dear Co-It-All, 

My very sniffly and very sneezy co-worker came into the office today despite the fact that she is obviously sick. This strikes me as a particularly annoying and selfish move given what I’ve been reading about a possible epidemic. Doesn’t everyone know that you’re not supposed to come to the office when you’re sick? How do I get her to go home? I feel like her germs are attacking me as I type this. Help!!!!

 

First off, I’m going to tell you to calm down. I would tell you to take a deep breath, but given the environment you describe, that’s maybe not the best idea. Another bad idea: reading flu horror stories on the Internet.

Because yes, the right Google search will produce an article about how we’re on the brink of an epidemic, but don’t you kind of feel like you heard that last year? And the year before that? I’m not trying to be flippant about a potentially dangerous virus (and now is probably a good time to note that my medical expertise comes exclusively from ten seasons of ER watching). Just saying that assuming you are a generally healthy person on this side of seventy, there is no need to freak. So again—chill.

What’s that? You can’t chill because as you read this, there is a woman hacking up a lung just two cubicles away? Fair enough. Flu season can be tough for a lot of people. Mostly for the people who get the flu, mind you. But also for those of us forced to navigate the awkwardness of being around potentially contagious people who insist on walking (and working!) among us.

It is one of those equations that just doesn’t add up: Employees get sick and wish they could stay home/Workplace policies say sick people should stay home/sick people still come into work.

So what gives? Well, a lot of things.

You didn’t mention if your co-worker is paid by the hour. If that is the case, then she is probably at work because she can’t afford not to be, and that is infinitely more sucky than the situation you currently find yourself in, so either get over it or go home.

Even if you work some place where sick days are provided, it can still be tricky. Sometimes a massive workload makes it feel like time off just isn’t an option, regardless of official policy. I can remember one boss who would come into the office looking like the before scene in a Buckley’s commercial, which was A) gross, and B) a not so subtle reminder that people who stay home when they’re sick are less committed. Oh, and they’re probably lying.

That’s right. According to a recent survey 80% of workers believe that a colleague who calls in sick is lying. So maybe this is why Sickie Smurf feels the need to present proof of illness. Or maybe she is currently working on a time-sensitive, top secret project that you know nothing about. Or maybe she just doesn’t want to waste a sick day on actual sickness, because she’s planning to call in sick on the Monday after the Super Bowl.

I don’t know her, so it’s hard to make any assumptions about what is causing her to abandon reason. But let’s get off of her motivation and take a sec to look at yours.

If this is really just about the fear of illness then—good news!—staying well has as much to do with your own behavior as it does with the human petri dish down the hall. Whether we’re talking seasonal flu or a debilitating case of the sniffles, these sorts of viruses are almost always passed via droplets that come out during coughing and sneezing and talking. They don’t—according to Centre for Disease Control—spread more than six feet, so if you can keep yourself at least one horizontal Hemsworth brother away from the culprit, your chances of contamination become very slim. (Bring them down even further by washing your hands more than you normally would—especially any time you visit a communal zone or touch anything that may have been handled by you know who)

I have a feeling though, that as well as staying healthy, you want to make your co-worker aware that what she’s doing is not okay.

A large bottle of Lysol or disinfectant wipes at your desk may help to send a not-so-subtle message. If you need to deal with this more directly then maybe wait for her next coughing fit, then point out that there is no point in getting the rest of the office sick and suggest that she heads home. Be nice and say that you would be happy to keep her up to date on office goings-on via email and then go wash your hands (again) while she makes up her own mind.

If she insists on sticking around, I would leave it. Yes, you could go to your boss or HR. Maybe you’ll get her sent home and that could result in feelings of victory in the short term. In the long term, though, you’ll probably feel like a jerk and when it comes to getting a good night sleep, feelings of self loathing can be a lot more disruptive than a bad cough.