Help Me Stay Healthy – Stay Home

It’s flu season — do you know where your germs are? I’ll tell you where they are: over here, making me sick!

The Ontario Medical Association recently released a statement encouraging people to stay home when they’re sick and asking employers to not require doctor’s notes:

Employers should encourage workers to stay home when sick - not require sick notes which has a discouraging effect and forces patients into the doctor’s office when they are sick, which only encourages the spread of germs to those in the waiting room, who in some cases are more vulnerable.

Thank you very much OMA for this moment of sanity!

I am one of the people who is more vulnerable. I take immunosuppressants for my RA. This combination of RA and the Biologics medication make you vigilant to the point of paranoia. You`re on the tail end of a cold? I don’t want to see you. You had the runs this morning and are pretty sure it was the Indian food from yesterday? I don’t want to see you. Your child has a runny nose? I don’t want to see you. Two people in your office are out with the flu? I don’t want to see you.

People don’t get this. It takes forever to train your family and friends to stay away if they or anyone around them are sick. Many even get offended when you cancel yet again because you don’t want to catch their cold. But there’s a very good reason for my “silliness.”

There’s no such thing as “just a cold” when you have an autoimmune disease and are on an immunosuppressant. This combo means I am more likely to catch anything contagious or develop infections. It also means that should I get sick, the consequences are much more severe for me than for the average healthy adult. Your cold might last a week to 10 days, make you feel kind of crappy but not slow you down too much. If I get a cold, I’m out for at least three weeks, maybe a few months, my RA may flare and I could develop pneumonia.

In other words: your germs could destroy my life for months. So please help keep me healthy. Stay away from me if you or anyone around you has been sick in the last week.

But why leave it there? Why not help others stay healthy, too?

Once upon a time in the 1990s, I worked in an office. One of the older admin assistants had a stellar attendance record. She’d had no sick days for a few decades. Lest you think she had an ironclad immune system, I should mention that she did catch colds and flus just like the rest of humanity. The only difference was that she didn’t call in sick. She came to work, no matter how sick she was, soldiering through being at death’s door.  Somehow, this accomplished her being seen as a role model for the rest of the office and the attendance program in general.

I was too young and too junior to opine loudly that the Emperor had no clothes (yes, of course I can connect this to a Danish fairy tale…). Because no one ever talked about how her coming to work while sick would inevitably set in motion a domino effect whereby the other 23 people in the office would catch the virus. And because this one woman refused to take one or two sick days, the rest of the staff would require 10-15 sick days.

One of the ongoing challenges of every organization out there is to manage absenteeism. To this end, it’s common to have absentee policies, whereby employees who call in sick too often find themselves in their manager’s office, having conversations and being monitored in the future. Some companies don’t have paid sick time at all. And in my obviously not-so-humble opinion, this is insane.

Going to work when you’re sick has two consequences. One, you’re sick longer because you’re not taking care of yourself. Two, have you ever seen Contagion? You pass the virus to easily half of the people in your office and as in my example above, one person dragging themselves to work when sick will cost another 10 sick days. This is not cost-effective. And it’s more than that. Because this one person passes the virus to the other people in the workplace, who pass it to their families, who pass it to their colleagues and friends and this is how half the country is prostrate with flu every winter! It's like that shampoo commercial, only with more tissues, coughing fits and death. Death? Yup. Because the flu can be deadly to people who are vulnerable, such as seniors and oh, yeah. People with compromised immune systems.

Isn’t it time we stop this madness? I have a few suggestions:

Take a broader look at absenteeism policies. Yes, it’s important that your employees come to work, but if the cost of that is that more employees call in sick, perhaps the policy isn’t working.

Less focus on employees physically being at work. Whenever possible, telecommuting should be available. Join the 21st century! Encourage your employees to work from home unless there’s an important reason for them to be at the office. There are a gazillion studies that show working from home can make you more productive. It can also be a real benefit for people who aren’t feeling well, whose children are sick or who have other obligations that need their attention.

For those people who can’t telecommute — attendants, mechanics, factory workers, doctors, firefighters — provide masks and encourage use of them.

Set up regional offices for doctor’s notes. As one of the commenters on this news story suggested, they should be paid for by employers that require said doctor’s notes. Sharing the expense would make it less costly for individual companies, while relieving the strain on the healthcare system. Having central locations also keeps more people with colds and flus away from doctor’s offices, thus helping to curtail the spread of these seasonal viruses.

Maybe we’d all be healthier if we used the model of protecting people whose health is vulnerable to everyone.


Unknown said…
I could not agree more! Thank you for writing this, Lene. I am coming off a four-week cold. It got into my chest, of course, because someone who was sick gave me a hug. I didn't know what to do, so I just stood there and took the hug. What would you have done?
AlisonH said…
A-screaming-men. Said the woman who caught someone's cold, only for me it includes a fever, a Crohn's flare, and quite possibly a Graves' flare too. The person I most likely got it from held a friend's baby and the baby ended up in the hospital.
Unknown said…
I know this won't be a popular belief but I don't blame people if I get sick. When I have gotten sick in the past, a friend or co-worker who has been sick always says, "Sorry if I made you sick." I always reply, "If I am sick, it's my own fault." I've been on biologists for 3.5 years and only once been sick and that was this year. I got sick when I let my diet go, let stress take over, and was doing too much. My immune system is strong when I treat it well. It is weak when I don't. If I get sick, I strongly believe it is my fault, not anyone else's.
Patti said…
Actually, your biologics work by turning off your immune system. You can't strengthen your immune system by avoiding stress and eating well when you're on biologics - they simply don't work that way.

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