What you need to know about the forces reshaping our industry.


January 29, 2015

So your coworker has the flu. Here's how to handle it with grace—and stay healthy.

Daily Briefing

This year's flu season is unusually severe, with some companies reporting as many of one-third of employees out sick over the past few weeks. However, there are common-sense tactics offices can use to limit the spread of this year's illness, the Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger reports.

Shellenbarger writes, "Coming face-to-face with a coughing, sniffling colleague requires empathy, tact—and good timing. Do you lean away and hold your breath, or just come out with it and suggest the co-worker go home?"

Obama to employers: Paid sick leave is a worker's right

Asking coworkers to go home

It is particularly hard to limit the spread of illness in an office. And when it comes to flu, people are contagious a day before symptoms appear—making it even more difficult to control its spread, according to Susan Rehm, vice chair of the infectious-disease department at Cleveland Clinic.

In many cases, the most effective solution may be simply telling a sick colleague to go home. A recent survey from OfficeTeam found that 70% of workers will come in to work when they are feeling ill.

However, a survey from NSF International shows that 11% of workers are uncomfortable about confronting a sick colleague and telling them to go home.

How to handle sick coworkers with grace

If you cannot keep sick coworkers from coming it, it may help to set boundaries. Some office workers are taking extreme steps to avoid infection, like creating quarantine rooms and offering face masks to colleagues, according to Shellenbarger.

But more generally, the NSF survey found 36% of workers were comfortable saying "I'd rather not shake your hand" to an ill colleague.  Nicholas Turner—co-CEO of Kaye/Bassman International Corp, an executive search firm—has a sign on an office door telling sick employees to email or call him. Turner says it may come off as "OCD," but it sends a message to staff that they should be mindful of their health.

Anna Post of the Emily Post Institute says it helps to keep things positive when confronting a sick coworker. She tries to avoid telling people they "sound awful" for instance, instead emphasizing that she is concerned for their wellbeing.

NYT: Why doctors refuse to take sick days

The most important way to prevent the flu from spreading is limiting time spent with symptomatic people in closed spaces, according to Rehm. The eight-person work team at AllProWebTools agrees. After two members came down with the flu, the team agreed anyone who needed to cough should go into the hallway. "I probably got up eight times to have a good coughing fit in the hall," says employee Andrea Lotz (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 1/27).

The takeaway: If you unable to keep sick employees from coming to work, it is important to treat them with empathy while looking for ways to limit potential infections.

More from today's Daily Briefing
  1. Current ArticleSo your coworker has the flu. Here's how to handle it with grace—and stay healthy.

Have a Question?


Ask our experts a question on any topic in health care by visiting our member portal, AskAdvisory.