When there's snow on the ground, I think they call your 'spring allergies' by it's latin term: "the Flu"
February 22, 2012 7:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm a supervisor, and one of my staff was out sick all last week with the flu. This week she is back, but coughing, hacking and sneezing loudly. When asked about it, she stated that she had allergies. I don't want her to infect the office, but am not sure how to pursue the conversation with her. Help?

My staff person is an incredibly private person. She also has in the past, when she began to get sick, stated that 'it wasn't that bad', only to come down with something that had her out for a few days. Her taking sick leave isn't the problem - that is what it is there for. Getting her work done in her absence isn't a problem - the team can handle it. Replacing her isn't an issue - she's a strong worker.

But it seems like she is in denial, and sort of defensive about it. A week and a half ago, when she began to get sick, she just coughed all over the office, until final two or three staff people, including myself, convinced her to go home. It was a friday, and she said at the time that she hoped to kick it by Monday, although if you'd heard her, you'd be under the impression that she wasn't accurately assessing the situation. She ended up being out for a week - each day sending emails that she was probably going to be better the next day.

So today, she was back in the office, and coughing up a storm. When I asked her about it, through menthol-y breath, she insisted she had allergies.

I realize that I need to check in with myself about why this is so uncomfortable. Personally, I realize this is a hang up - I hate it when people claim not to be sick, and are sick, and then infect everyone else, in a patient zero situation. Also, I really don't want everyone else in the office to get sick either. On the other hand, if it's allergies, it's allergies. Also, who am I to diagnose someone? But back to the first hand - I know if I get sick over the next few days, I am going to be incredibly resentful - even though I know I won't be able to prove that she had anything to do with it.

I want to wait to see how she's doing tomorrow, but if it continues, or such a situation happens again, what's the best way to approach this? I will check with HR about requiring her to go home, or getting a doctor's note, but I'd like to try to clearly state the position that I want to protect the office, and her. Sometimes you just need to stay in bed and rest until you really are better.

So, anyone ever had to have this conversation? Anyone had anyone have this conversation with their boss? Any ideas on how to handle it? I'm in the states, and work at a college, if it matters.

Going now to go grab some vitamin C. I know it won't help, but I can dream.
posted by It's a Parasox to Work & Money (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
So, anyone ever had to have this conversation? Anyone had anyone have this conversation with their boss?

A long time ago I had this conversation with my boss. It went, basically:

Boss: You sound terrible. You shouldn't be in the office. You should go home.
Me: I would truly love to go home but, as you are aware, I'm a casual. It's rent week next week, and I'm broke. I will not make rent unless I work these hours.
Boss: Go home. We will pay you.

Exeunt all.
posted by pompomtom at 7:36 PM on February 22, 2012 [23 favorites]

As someone who is sick frequently and has allergies, I can semi-vouch for her claim of allergies. As I'm coming off a sickness, my allergies actually get worse. I can feel the difference between cold symptoms and allergy symptoms. Sometimes a sneeze is a sick, juicy sneeze, and sometimes it's an allergic sneeze that just sounds worse because of the cloudy-head cold symptoms. So her telling you it's allergies isn't necessarily her trying to mislead you.

Do you notice that other people in the office frequently get sick after she does? If so, then maybe--maybe--this is something for you to personally be concerned about. But otherwise, back off. This is none of your business. Next time you find yourself dwelling on your coworker's habits, try taking a walk around the block. The fresh air will do you good.

I'm reminded of an Ask from a while back where someone was asking for polite ways to suggest that their coworkers eat more fiber after listening in on some protracted bathroom sessions. Our coworkers' personal habits are none of our business.
posted by phunniemee at 7:38 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I feel like "toughing it out" when i'm sick will make a good impression.

Maybe you can just bluntly tell her: Your sick time is there to use when you're sick. You are currently sick. Please go home until you are better the end.
posted by sarahnicolesays at 7:41 PM on February 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

Allergies feel very different from cold or flu. Unless she's regularly infecting people, I'd take her at her word.
posted by smirkette at 7:44 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are sick days and vacation days conflated into PTO? Because that invention is basically a sure-fire way to make it so any time anyone is sick they won't actually stay home.

"If you're sick, go home, it won't count against your PTO."

"Really? OK."
posted by incessant at 7:51 PM on February 22, 2012 [23 favorites]

Can you offer her the option to work from home (or "work," as the case may be) at home until she's more fully recovered? That would get her out of the office without costing her additional sick leave or hourly wages.

Also, I second phunniemee's thoughts re: allergies. If I stayed home every day my allergies have me coughing and sneezing, I would almost literally never go to work.
posted by serialcomma at 7:57 PM on February 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Don't force her to go home unless you *know* she's infectious or you're going to pay for it. That said, the contagious period for most stuff is at the beginning, not the tail end, from what I've always heard, and it *is* getting into the season for allergy hell, especially for those of us who had unseasonably warm winters.
posted by gracedissolved at 7:58 PM on February 22, 2012

Coughs from colds and flus can linger for a long ass time. She may be feeling better in every way except for the cough and some remaining sniffles, and is probably no longer contagious. And if she's been out for a week already, I can understand her thinking that's more than enough time to get over it and that she's already taken too much time off. I'd say leave her alone unless she looks really terrible or her symptoms are really interfering with her work.
posted by yasaman at 8:11 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. It does depend on whether or not it's genuinely "okay" and not going to financially drain her or waste vacation days if she's home sick. Has she used up all of her sick days by now?

2. If it's a case like yasaman mentioned, it is kind of a waste for her to stay home with a cough and sniffles. Especially if it's allergies, because that kind of thing will be going on all spring. Also, even if she is feeling better, if you've had a major flu-ish sort of thing, sometimes nasty permacoughs linger on for months. I had one that lasted for about a year and sounded terrible when it came on, but nobody "caught" anything from me

3. She may have worked somewhere else or grown up with the notion that you are not out sick unless you absolutely can't help it. Some employers in her past may have given her shit for this. Or she could have been raised by my mom, because she harassed me to have Perfect Attendance and it took me a couple of years of being in "the real world" with sick days + getting pneumonia and having to be driven home to get the drift that it's "okay" to go home sick and stay there.

What can you do? Honestly, I don't know if your office will let her go home or not without a financial hit, but assuming that is the case, just monitor her and if she's looking especially bad, politely request that she go home.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:34 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Many people have winter allergies--dust and mold are two big ones. Dry air from heating systems exacerbate this for a lot of people.

Also, some people just get sick more dramatically than others. I routinely get winter crud (in addition to my allergies) and will hack and sneeze dramatically for a month or more--it happens nearly every year, like clockwork. I'm not infectious or anything, but the residual effects of the illness tend to really hang on for me.

Though this hasn't happened to me, I know several people who've been asked to start bringing in notes from a doctor proving that they're not contagious. Every one of them has been incredibly offended (most took it as a sign to start looking for a new job), and, frankly, I don't think they're in the wrong. Unless your sick leave policy is "take as much as you need, just please don't come to the office if there's any chance at all that you might possibly cough on someone", you need to trust that your employees are adult enough to decide when they're well enough to work and when they're not, whatever that might mean for them.
posted by MeghanC at 8:37 PM on February 22, 2012

Some allergic people, myself included, get asthma flare-ups after colds. The flare-up can last for weeks (ugh) and I sound like crap, but once it's just my lungs overreacting and not cold virus infestation, I don't think I can pass it on.

That having been said, yeah, examine your leave policy, and if it would cost her nothing to be gone, you might suggest she do so.
posted by nat at 8:49 PM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

I can get lingering coughs after colds that persist long past the point where I am remotely contagious. I just have shitty lungs, and allergies, and my lungs get overzealous sometimes and I walk around sounding like death and feeling basically OK and infecting no one. Maybe she is that person. Leave some Mucinex lying around and wash your hands a lot for your own peace of mind. If she were going to infect you, it would have happened on Friday.
posted by prefpara at 8:51 PM on February 22, 2012

This is precisely the time when a lot of people get allergies. Seems weird for it to happen in winter, but there you go. If she says it's allergies, you should take her at her word. If you know for a fact it's the flu, then you should be firm, and send her home with full pay. But all you have right now is her word that it's allergies, so it's allergies.
posted by zardoz at 8:58 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I do this. I get pretty irrational when I'm sick and feel guilty taking sick leave if I'm not throwing up or running a high fever. I feel like I'm not really sick enough to call in sick even though I don't usually call in sick more than once a year.

Maybe emphasize that by staying home she's doing everyone a favor if she's still contagious even if she's well enough to work. Then she can justify not coming in even if she is just barely well enough to work.
posted by whoaali at 9:12 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding yasaman. I'm one of those people who once I start coughing, I might cough for a really really long time. I had a cough this past March that lasted maybe 6 weeks...and I was hacking the whole time. My sister wanted me to go to the doctor (which I did) but he basically told me he's sees it all the time and that I wasn't contagious anymore. It would have been basically impossible for me to not go to work for that 6 weeks.
posted by biscuits at 9:13 PM on February 22, 2012

Can you offer her the option to work from home (or "work," as the case may be) at home until she's more fully recovered?

If her regular work responsibilities cannot be completed from home, consider assigning some sort of online training program. This is what our human resources department suggested last time my employer closed down due to inclement weather.
posted by grouse at 9:14 PM on February 22, 2012

Response by poster: Hi all,

Thank you for all of your thoughtful answers. As a person who doesn't suffer from allergies - it helps to hear these perspectives.

Since some of you asked, I should clarify that sick leave is not mixed in any way with vacation time, or personal time. Sick leave is paid at the full work rate. She has about seven or eight weeks I imagine, of time.

It's been helpful to hear from people who actually are allergy sufferers.

I'm also wondering about the perspective of those who work in offices where you do hear someone consistently hacking, coughing, sniffling, etc. I ask because one thought I had was that people who are hearing this might have concerns but would be reluctant to raise them. But one person int he office was trying to avoid this staff person all day. That's not conducive to work either. So, group harmony-wise, what would be an appropriate way to respond or help co workers who are hearing the coughing, etc., and have to work closely with this person, and have concerns?
posted by It's a Parasox at 9:15 PM on February 22, 2012

yeah i hate to be an insensitive jerk but i fancy that i can tell the difference between someone who's sick and someone who's got a persistent hack/allergies etc., and i do not and will not hesitate to tell someone who's sick to get away from me or go home - it's incredibly selfish behavior on their part, probably my biggest (only?) pet peeve. if i'm wrong once in a while, that's ok, i'd rather err on the side of caution. a manager who fails to address that type of situation is really irresponsible in my book - if somebody wants to work sick, tell them to bring in a doctor's note saying they're not contagious. *obviously* it's my business if someone comes into my workplace sick - just as it's obviously *not* my business if someone comes into my workplace with a disability. it's not a subtle distinction - this is just common sense.

on the other hand, the guy in the office next to mine has had a dry cough for years, and the guy down the hall sneezes every single day, but you know what? it's obvious they don't have communicable illnesses, and it doesn't bother me in the slightest.
posted by facetious at 9:36 PM on February 22, 2012

I had the flu back at the beginning of December and I coughed almost through January. So the fact that she's still coughing may not be a sign that she is still contagious especially if she was exhibiting symptoms a week and a half ago. The CDC says the following about the contagious period for the flu:

"Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than 7 days. Symptoms start 1 to 4 days after the virus enters the body. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Some persons can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those persons may still spread the virus to others."

Not really your question, but perhaps it'll make you feel better about her hacking up a lung in your office this week.
posted by cecic at 9:49 PM on February 22, 2012

Last week I had a nasty sinus infection. I live with my mom who's just gone through cancer treatment and has only one lung, and it's imperative I don't get her sick. My doctor told me that after 24 hours on antibiotics I'd no longer be contagious. I still sneezed and coughed for 3-4 days afterwards, and my voice still is a bit nasally. Taking some Zyrtec did help a little.

Set out a bowl of Halls and some non-Halls cough or sore throat drops (I hate Halls personally and will only use them if I'm super desperate). Also set out boxes of kleenex. (As an allergy sufferer, the thing I hate most is when there's no stock of tissues around. TP is rough on your nose.) Set out hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes and encourage their use.
posted by IndigoRain at 2:35 AM on February 23, 2012

yeah i hate to be an insensitive jerk but i fancy that i can tell the difference between someone who's sick and someone who's got a persistent hack/allergies

Well I also hate to be a jerk but you know what? Most of you non-sufferers cannot tell the difference, otherwise there wouldn't be so many of you who come up and ask me if I'm sick when I know full well that this is a bad allergy day. The truth is, I don't want to be around you (smoker, wearing perfume, bringing me dusty things) as much as you don't want to be around me (because you THINK you can tell that I am sick).

I don't want to work around people when I feel this way, but sometimes there is an obligation because of this wonderful idea of "open plan offices" and that everything should be collaborative. What to do...?

Please leave your coworker alone. At most, ask her if she really is feeling okay and remind her that the time off won't reflect badly on her. The suggestion to let her work from home is great if it fits within your company.
posted by whatzit at 3:13 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I go into the office all the time when I should be in bed nursing my bronchitis or whatever. I do it because I used to get sick a lot and if I'm out all the time it'd be a serious issue and people don't like it when I'm out. And then I feel they'll question my commitment and think I'm a terrible worker.

I would LOVE it if my boss would say to me "wow you look terrible. I know you think you should be here to prove you're a team player, and you have- you're a strong worker and I'm happy with how committed you are. But go home already, I don't want to get sick. We'll cover for you" then I would go home happily. If it was just allergies, I would say that again.

Also being given the option to work from home is great when it's crunch time and I feel I can't "afford" to be sick. It's more restful also since I can work in my PJs and nap during lunch time.
posted by saraindc at 5:06 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

You sound like a great boss. I have worked in environments where you get fired if you take off for anything. I worked in a pharmacy where they would drug you to stay. You couldn't call in sick. Perhaps she has worked at a place like that before.

Go to her and let her know that you do not want to replace her, she is a hard worker. Tell her that you will warn her if she is taking too much time, you would never fire her out of the blue. That reassurance might give her the confidence to take the time that she needs.

She may have a co-worker or team leader that is bullying her for taking time off. Someone who has to take up the slack when she is gone may act hostile to her because she misses work. You may want to look into that. The boss rarely knows where the bad seed is, but there is usually one in every office.

Germs are everywhere. Just because she isn't coughing on you doesn't mean you won't get sick. If being around a sick person automatically got you sick, doctors and nurses would stay sick. She isn't a walking time bomb. If you do get sick, have the decency to not blame her. For all you know, it could be from the buggy at the grocery store. Germs are random.

It is distracting to listen to someone cough all day. Sadly, after many viruses, a cough can last for weeks. She may feel fine except for the cough, which I am sure she is already self conscience about. If it is really bothering you, talk to her about what you can do to change the work environment to help with her breathing. Does she need a Hepa air purifier at her desk? Is she allergic to the chemicals the cleaning people use? Would a humidifier help? I do have allergies and I brought in my own air purifier. My boss looked at me funny at first, but he likes the the office now smells like rain instead of feet, so I get to keep it.
posted by myselfasme at 6:14 AM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think answers to the effect of "sure it can be allergies" aren't really all that applicable here. It sounds like it can be, but this person both was recently diagnosed with the flu and has a history of lying about her health so that she can go to work. The simplest explanation is the likeliest here, which is that she's not a reliable reporter of her own health.

I'd just go up to her and be a boss, Miss Manners style. "I'm sorry, but I need you to work from home today." When she tries to object, just repeat it until she gets the message.

So, group harmony-wise, what would be an appropriate way to respond or help co workers who are hearing the coughing, etc., and have to work closely with this person, and have concerns?

The correct response is to emphasize to the person coughing that it's really not okay to be working like that, because it's bad for the health and productivity of those around her. Her coworkers should not be forced to be in close quarters with her.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:30 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hilariously, I currently am home sick with the flu as I type this. But I'm worried about it-not because my office doesn't have generous sick leave policies-because it does-and not because I can't work from home - because I can. But because in this economy, a lot of people are worried about their job, even if there's no solid reason to. This worry might be unavoidable.

Also, as someone who's suffered allergies, it is sometimes hard to tell which is which. In fact, this current flu bout, I thought was allergies until it got really bad.

myselfasme is also completely spot on. Despite my boss being really accomodating, another staffer at my job is not so accomodating-constantly pushing me for having work done even when I am sick or on vacation. This does make me reluctant to take it. If this staffer didn't exist, or were less obnoxious, I'd probably take more sick time. They're not responsible for my hiring or firing, but they do have a lot of influence at my office-and I suspect that yes, there is one in every office.
posted by corb at 6:44 AM on February 23, 2012

I've always thought that as flu season approaches, offices that have sick-leave policy that is humane (separate from your vacation, or unlimited, or whatever) should send out a reminder about sick policy, so that people know it's really, really okay to stay home.

And if you have a known pushy busybody like corb says above, I know it would be appreciated if that person got a reminder that others' sick leave is none of their business.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:30 AM on February 23, 2012

The big problem for me with people who drag themselves in horribly sick is that it not only adds to the amount of germs going around, but that it sets the bar for everyone else, if the powers let it go unmarked upon. And there is also the fact that everyone knows that when you are really vilely sick your work is generally not that good. You're marking time as much as anything. But some people feel they have to come in so that their workload doesn't fall on others - and then that sets up a vicious circle for everyone else as they get sick.

In such situations, I think it's good for everyone to take the person aside and say as much you appreciate their Herculean efforts to drag themselves into work, they're really not fit to be there. And you sincerely would prefer that they go home, recover, not infect everyone and also not potentially send themselves into hospital by not taking care of their illness properly.

(And you sound like a great person to work for.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:24 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've always been someone who didn't mind working through illness, but I've been much more likely to call in sick after a talk with a colleague with an immunodeficiency disorder. If you have colleagues with HIV, Type I diabetes, or a number of health issues you may never have heard of, you could be putting their lives at work when you come to work while contagious. Since health information is private and not something you're likely to know about all of your colleagues, you may not even know if you have a co-worker whose life you are threatening. I may feel less crummy than I sound and think those folks who complain about my cough are a bunch of whiners, but I am not interested in needlessly bringing serious health risks to the office, so I call in sick now. I don't know if a similar explanation of the hidden side-effects of working while sick might help your colleague.

Also, does your company offer any benefits that would make staying home more palatable? A woman that I supervise attempted to come back to work this week because she had exhausted all of her sick leave and was at risk of going unpaid. She was in such bad shape that I marched her directly to our HR department, where she was briefed on how to apply for short-term disability benefits and promptly sent home. Now she gets at least another week to recover, and will be paid 60% of her regular salary until she returns to the option. Not every employer offers short-term disability, of course, but it's awfully nice if it is an option.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:08 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

*lives at work =lives at risk
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:17 AM on February 23, 2012

I think all these comments about allergies/bug illness are particularly relevant as well as the ones questioning whether or not she's actually infecting someone. Also relevant, as others have said, is whether or not she knows that it is really ok to take sick leave.

I once worked at a place where I was penalized if I took sick time. They called it a "pattern" and I was dinged on my performance review. A friend who worked in at a different company was once verbally warned for taking sick time (aka unscheduled leave) and told that if he took any more unscheduled leave for a year there would be a problem with HR.

Ultimately though, she's a grown up who can make health decisions for herself. Unless you know for a fact that she's contagious (like she has pink eye or something) it doesn't even matter if other people aren't all that happy that she's at work unless you have someone with an autoimmune illness in your office. The only thing you can really do is reassure her that you would prefer that she takes sick time if she does need it, that she won't be penalized etc. and then let her make up her own mind.
posted by Kimberly at 9:26 AM on February 23, 2012

She has about seven or eight weeks I imagine, of time.

wat. Seven or eight weeks of sick time? Where do you work and will you hire me?

If the coughing and sneezing are bothering other people, and you can't/are not going to send her home, is there a spare office or a conference room with a door that she can use temporarily? I personally cannot concentrate at all when someone in the next cube is hacking and sneezing.
posted by desjardins at 10:55 AM on February 24, 2012

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