Jeez, are you okay over there?
August 23, 2012 10:15 AM   Subscribe

I'm fairly new at my job (about six weeks in), and I have a co-worker who coughs all day long at ~30-second intervals. All. Day. Long.

The job is otherwise delightful, but this thing is driving me absolutely bat-turd insane. On my third day during lunch I bought noise-cancelling headphones, but only Slayer and Lightning Bolt at headache-inducing volumes can drown out the constant hacking. I don't work directly with her; we've only spoken once, when I was briefly introduced to her. Our office isn't really big enough for me to find a better spot, and remote working is discouraged except for occasionally.

I lack the confidence at this stage to ask her about it directly, so I need some coping strategies. I need some coping strategies!!!
posted by yalestar to Grab Bag (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
White noise. I know longer have to listen to my co-workers munching on apples and carrots and celery. Here's a free browser-based noise generator.
posted by logicpunk at 10:20 AM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

... no longer ...
posted by logicpunk at 10:20 AM on August 23, 2012

Anonymously gift her some cough drops? I like the Ricola ones.
posted by Grither at 10:21 AM on August 23, 2012

Can you let her know about how noticible her coughing is by expressing concern? Something like "This may be way out of left field, but I hear you coughing an awful lot. Are you okay? Is it allergies? I sometimes get like that in the spring..."

That'll be fairly transparent but what can you do.

as for coping, agreeing with white noise, though you're likely going to have to crank that too to drown that out.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:27 AM on August 23, 2012

In this circumstance I would ask my manager for suggestions. That brings to his/her attention that your colleague does this, that it's distracting for you and gives the manager the chance to make some kind of change. Be non-confrontational; I'd phrase it as "I don't know if you know this, but one of my neighbors in Cube Land has a persistent cough that I find terribly distracting. Can you suggest some way for me to cope with this?"

If I were managing you, I'd want to know about something that was driving you batshit.
posted by workerant at 10:31 AM on August 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding white noise generation of some kind. Foam or even custom ear plugs might also work. I bought a few boxes of the foam kind that you roll up and then stick in your ears, which slowly expand and create a sort of vacuum-seal effect. I still haven't needed to open boxes #2 and #3, but they have saved my life in the ongoing battle of Early Mornings VS The Loudest And Saddest Dog Ever.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 10:33 AM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Can you let her know about how noticible her coughing is by expressing concern? Something like "This may be way out of left field, but I hear you coughing an awful lot. Are you okay? Is it allergies? I sometimes get like that in the spring..."

Please don't do this. The likelihood that this person is coughing on purpose ~1000 times per day is virtually nil, so all you'll be accomplishing is making her uncomfortable, deceiving her into thinking that you're concerned, and, at worst, getting her to confide in you about her health under false pretenses.
posted by telegraph at 10:35 AM on August 23, 2012 [28 favorites]

I am not sure about ever bringing it up to her unless/until you are better acquainted with her. It could make her feel self-conscious or embarrassed about an issue that she must be aware of anyway.

At the same time, you do want to work in a place without distraction. Are you in a cube? Would you be able/allowed to put some kind of barrier up, like a half-wall or a screen? Depending on the layout of the office, that might make you look terribly anti-social though.
posted by methroach at 10:36 AM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who has a chronic cough (from gastric reflux or something) and she is incredibly aware and very self-conscious about it. Do the white noise thing, please don't bring it up with the co-worker.
posted by bolognius maximus at 10:39 AM on August 23, 2012 [6 favorites]

The likelihood that this person is coughing on purpose ~1000 times per day is virtually nil

agreed, but it could be that they aren't aware that they are doing it. I have a coworker who does exactly this, she coughs/clears her throat loudly every couple of minutes, and I don't think she is aware that she does it. I also have a coworker who clicks a pen repeatedly when he is thinking hard (which is often). I had another co-worker who hummed along to whatever music he was listening to on his headphones. He was totally unaware he was doing it until I told him and asked if he could please stop because oh my god it was annoying. And hey, once he was aware of it he was able to control it and he doesn't do it any more (thank god).

People aren't always aware they are doing something, but if it is brought to their attention they may be able to better control it.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:41 AM on August 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

She might have whooping cough, you mention it's a hacking cough so I am guessing it's not just a polite throat clearing. I would sound like I was hacking up and lung every few minutes when I had it and it lasted almost 3 months, drove everyone around me crazy. (Also took me 6 weeks to get diagnosed because I thought it was just a cold so I ended up giving it to half the office too).

Maybe bring it up to them casually in a concerned for their health way, if there is a reason they know of they will probably tell you and if it's a habit they might be more aware of it.
posted by wwax at 10:52 AM on August 23, 2012

Also meant to add, whooping cough is having a bit of a revival at the moment.
posted by wwax at 10:54 AM on August 23, 2012

Please don't mention it. My mom and husband both have acid reflux, which leads them to cough a LOT. Both are very sensitive about it even to people they are close with. A new co-worker mentioning it would not go well.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:00 AM on August 23, 2012

She might also have a psychosomatic cough - some people cough when they're stressed out or whatever, and they don't even know that they're doing it. Sort of a very mild tic disorder. I don't think you should address it with her personally. I would do white noise first, then escalate to talking to your supervisor about it if it continues to drive you crazy.

Oh, also, try to get to know her better. If you can see her as "Judy" instead of a faceless bout of coughing, you might be able to overlook it more easily.

I sympathize, though. My office-mate has had a cough for A MILLION YEARS (OK: since I got back from vacation a couple of weeks ago) and it is slowly driving me mad.
posted by mskyle at 11:01 AM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had someone like this at a past job. Turns out their Tourette's manifested through coughing over and over, so I'm glad I didn't do the passive-aggressive thing! HR was unwilling to do much besides give me strategies to white out the noise. I ended up leaving the job.
posted by theraflu at 11:05 AM on August 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Pods of cubes force people into very close quarters and there is a very, very tiny chance of that you'll enjoy spending so much time in close proximity to a bunch of strangers. Unless something is under a person's conscious control, you're better off deciding to deal with it on your side (white noise+noise cancelling headset). Another idea is to get to know her; people's little tics sometimes become more tolerable when they're friends.

Some problems you can (and probably should) directly confront, e.g. smelly lunch eaters, loud talkers, political/talk radio listeners. Incessant coughing? It seems unlikely that she can control it.

Speaking as a manager if you come to me I'll try to help you. On the other hand if she has some health issue, it's somewhat likely that her manager knows that there's a physical problem. In that case, you could come off as seeming extremely insensitive.
posted by 26.2 at 11:09 AM on August 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Unless you have an office door to close, I recommend the noise-cancelling headphones. Instead of drowning it out, try to muffle it for the sake of your own hearing.

Also, please be mindful that it very well may be that this woman would love nothing more than to stop coughing. It could be acid reflux. It could be cough variant asthma. It could be any number of things. While this doesn't eliminate the noise, understanding this may make it less annoying that noise from voluntary actions.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:09 AM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everyone's got such amazing suggestions! I love Ask Metafilter so much.

Yes--AGREED. If its a real distraction, please go ask your supervisor/boss what you could do. Sometimes I'm in those type of situations and no one else seems to be as bothered by it as me, so I find it hard to tell people "Whoa, isn't that coughing annoying?" for fear of it being construed as rude. But if you talk to your boss privately, telling him/her it definitely isn't anything personal, but a genuine distraction--I'm sure he/she will help you out there.
posted by rhythm_queen at 11:11 AM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I do this. I did not know I did this. I saw a doctor about it once it was brought to my attention very off-handedly by a co-worker. I was mortified, yes, but I also wanted to see a way to fix it. Saw a doctor and got a Flonase prescription. Thing is, I think it is kind of a tic which is really frustrating. I do it most when I'm around people in close quarters and when my mind is occupied. Maybe it's stress? I've never been able to figure it out. I mean, WTF, body?! For me, it manifests in a sort of throat-clearing or small cough. Now that I know about it, I do head it off in those situations as much as possible. Tea, cough drops, Flonase, walk around the office...mind control!

So, I think you could raise the issue very gently and with the understanding that you will still most likely need to figure a way to tune it out... Move to another part of the office maybe.
posted by amanda at 11:21 AM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't bring it up??

Bring it up. Most definitely.

She is coughing twice every 60 seconds. That is big deal in a small work area, and it *will* affect both your productivity and your daily temperament. You will explode ferociously on her soon enough.

Slayer doesn't work. "White noise" will never. Plus - this the cougher's problem, not OPs.

Talk to the manager and have them spend a half-day alongside you if they are dismissive.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:21 AM on August 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Personally, I can't imagine how weird it would be if I brought something like this up to a supervisor. The only things I've ever successfully brought up have been things that directly affect project success, and not in a "it's affecting my concentration and therefore success" way.

I'd try to move spots, find some reason even though I know you've said you can't. I'm just saying I've worked in casual environments but it's never seemed acceptable to bring up something like this.

Also, yes, don't mention it to her because if it's her health issue it's not appropriate to try to get her to discuss it.
posted by sweetkid at 11:31 AM on August 23, 2012

I was once this person coughing. I found it wildly inappropriate and annoying when my (senior) colleague strongly suggested I get on allergy medication for it. Was I going to go on medication for her convenience? No, as it affects my body, and I was more willing to deal with the very annoying cough. I viewed it as unfortunate for her, but we all have shit we have to deal with. I ensured I didn't have a contagious condition and that was the best I felt I needed to do. I would have loved to have another solution that was amenable to both of us, BECAUSE THE COUGH WAS ABSOLUTE HELL FOR ME, but there wasn't one. I did go to the doctor to check.

Was this the best way to view things? Possibly not. You might criticize me for it. But anyway this person may feel the same way.
posted by saraindc at 11:34 AM on August 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

The guys around me all tap on their desks all day long - amateur drumming - basically tapping directly on my desk due to the close quarters and interlocking cubicle furniture. I have headphones. Buy better headphones if the ones you have aren't working.

(I was told by the head of HR of a very large multinational corporation that people wearing headphones in the office is unprofessional. Clearly he has never worked in a cubicle.)
posted by valeries at 11:35 AM on August 23, 2012

The only reason I would bring it up is if I was a perfume/cologne/other scented items wearing person - I'd want to know if it was something that I was doing that was causing her cough, so I could stop doing that thing.
posted by elizardbits at 11:36 AM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

You can tune it out. It sounds impossible, but really, you can. It's important not to fixate on how you wish it would stop, because that just reinforces how much it bothers you. Any time you hear it, calm your thoughts, tell yourself it's not important, you have more important things to do and get on with your job. Eventually, once you stop focusing on it, it will become just more background noise and it won't bother you. I have a sinus-clearer near me, and he's now just one more sound the office makes, and it washes right over me. I do wish I had learned how to do this years and years ago, so if you can do it, you'll be way ahead of the game.

(Now the drumming: That I would mention, that's not a health-related issue and would have no problem saying "dude, you're doing it again." But that might be because I know what really good drumming sounds like and you just can't do that in a cubicle.)
posted by sageleaf at 11:50 AM on August 23, 2012

I would also suggest that it's unlikely she can control this. I used to work with a few people who had chronic coughs without a physical cause and even though they had nothing physical making them cough, it was extremely difficult for them to break their coughing habit. On the other hand I also worked with a lady in her thirties who had a chronic progressive lung condition. She had got to the point where she couldn't work, but previously she was working and just coughing all the time. That would be an awkward conversation if you brought it up!
posted by kadia_a at 1:14 PM on August 23, 2012

I recommend working on exploring what options can reduce the amount of a noise for you. Try different types of earplugs or white noise machines or whatever else you think will help you. Then, wait a few weeks and see if the coughing dies down at all. It may be a nasty cold or it may be seasonal. If the coughing continues, I suggest talking to a colleague you can trust, to see if this person is going ton be coughing all. the. time. Then, I'd suggest asking your boss for a desk reassignment or perhaps taking it up with HR.

I will tell you I once sat across from a chronic cougher (who also constantly burped and smelled like old beer to the point where I worked with my hand over my nose and mouth most days) and I went to HR to ask them to intervene. They refused to do anything about it. My point is, you may just have to live with the coughing.
posted by emilynoa at 2:46 PM on August 23, 2012

Well, after commiserating with a co-worker, I learned she has asthma, which makes me feel like kind of an asshole, but no less annoyed.

But by the by, this:

"who also constantly burped and smelled like old beer to the point where I worked with my hand over my nose and mouth most days"

...not only made me laugh out loud, it made me realize it could be much worse.
posted by yalestar at 3:40 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

If its asthma, it's not under control.

Hopefully this is just a flareup of bronchitis and she'll get better soon. Maybe she's not going to be like this forever.
posted by taff at 5:21 PM on August 23, 2012

I am this person.

My office rearranges people pretty regularly. Each time this happens, in the first couple weeks about half of the new people are pretty much guaranteed to come over and ask if I'm sick (I'm not; it's allergies). It's like clockwork.

But for what it's worth, almost every single one of these people later says that they don't even hear it anymore. So give it some time; I'll bet in a few months it will just be background noise.
posted by sah at 5:34 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ugh - I feel your pain.
Is there another cube you could move to? I once sat across from a woman who, like clockwork, would blow her nose for 2 minutes straight every day at 2:30. Just thinking about it makes me want to gag. I mentioned it to my manager and ended up moving across the office to a bigger, brighter space that was also much quieter.
posted by Coffeemate at 6:41 PM on August 23, 2012

Personally, I can't imagine how weird it would be if I brought something like this up to a supervisor. The only things I've ever successfully brought up have been things that directly affect project success, and not in a "it's affecting my concentration and therefore success" way.

This is what supervisors are for.
posted by gjc at 7:09 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I coughed constantly for about five years, to the point where one of the other women in the office demanded that I be checked for TB - which was negative. I had every kind of test imaginable - because I had insurance that would cover those tests - including upper GI, endoscopic exam of my stomach and esophagus, chest x-rays/CAT scans galore, a laryngoscopy, and more. I changed my diet many times, took every kind of allergy/GERD/anxiety/whatever pill - and I coughed on. I hated it and I knew it drove my coworkers crazy, but I needed my job and I was darn good at it. After about five years of this, other things began happening that sent me to my doctor and then to a neurologist, and I was found to have early-onset Parkinson's Disease - I was 48. After only a few months on levodopa (once I managed to keep it down, that is), my cough had nearly vanished.

Point: She knows she's coughing, she hates it even more than you do, and there's something wrong with her that will show up when it decides to. In the meantime, you're new there and most likely will just need to figure out some way to get past the aggravation point and learn to put it out of your mind. Try to drum up some compassion for this woman, because she has a health issue that makes it harder for her to work than is true for most of you; constant coughing is nothing if not exhausting.
posted by aryma at 10:24 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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