Why American workers are especially at risk during flu season

There’s a lot in a sneeze.
There’s a lot in a sneeze.
Image: AP Photo archive/Marshall W. Jennison
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’Tis the time of year when the only office refrain more common than the hum of colleagues gathered around to rehash New Year’s festivities and compare post-holiday resolutions is the cacophonous echo of coughs, sneezes, and sniffles.

Yes, cold and flu season is officially upon us—the worst of it, according to the Center for Disease Control, which stipulates the riskiest flu season-period spans December to February—although infectious season can easily last into May.

The flu was  predicted to be especially nasty this year. I mean, the bubonic plague made a comeback.

Working during cold and flu season can feel like navigating a minefield in a war zone—even if it’s a comparatively cushy war zone with filtered water and adjustable office chairs. I intuitively shudder and shift my gait when I hear someone unleash a giant cough or sneeze as I’m heading into a meeting. I use paper towels to open doors and wash my hands with extra vigor.

But my efforts are often in vain. I’m no match for the juggernaut bodily functions that have spent eons perfecting how to spread disease and wreak havoc on the human system.


Coughs and sneezes are the most likely culprits that cause germ-born illnesses to jump from one person to another. That awful snotty mess that your toddler gifted to you on the way to school drop-off this morning? Chances are you’re about to impart it straight to your work colleagues.

A cough can contain up to 3,000 germ-ridden droplets and travel up to 50 miles per hour. A sneeze packs even more power, with 100,000 globules of germs flying through the common workspace air at speeds up to 100 miles per hour, qll small enough to go undetected by the human eye. Even if you’re sitting at your desk trying to mind your own business, the odds are stacked against you.

Needless to say, it’s in everyone’s interest that you stay home and keep your germs to yourself. But according to a Robert Half survey, nine in 10 Americans still come to work while experiencing cold and flu-like symptoms.

The benefit (and privilege) of not showing up

In a work culture that consistently rewards hard work and long hours, it’s no wonder that we often choose to put our performance and productivity above health—both our own and our colleagues’. Trends like open offices and collaborative workspaces designed to foster creativity and supportive work environments also lead to more germs spread more expediently. A 2011 study by the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Denmark cited a 62% increase in sick days in open-office workplaces compared to those with office layouts with dividers or walls. A 2014 study from the University of Stockholm made further connections between workplace design and the spread of office colds and flu.

The gig economy has given rise to more people working outside of the confines (and therefore the protections) of a 9 to 5 job, like one New York City woman who offered to go back to work a mere three days after giving birth—and was told it was not soon enough.

Lack of paid sick leave has been found to have direct links to heightened financial stress, higher rates of poverty, and worse mental health—yet about 45% of Americans have no paid sick leave.

Despite the very real prospect of spreading or contracting infection, more than half of US employees don’t use their sick days, according to a December 2019 study, which cites culture as the culprit. Of the roughly 1,000 employees polled for the study across the country, 38% of US workers said they would go to work while knowingly contagious. The study also shows that women are more likely than men to show up to work while sick, at 42% versus 35%.

If you’re the type of employee to soldier through and drag your aching, coughing body to your office, you’re not doing anyone any favors. In fact, you’re basically giving the rest of your office—and your fellow commuters, if you use public transportation—the proverbial middle finger loaded with contagion by coming in and pretending everything is fine and that you are not immune-compromised.

Is it worth your proving to yourself and your manager (who, by the way, would rather you stay home because they are also human and don’t want to catch your ick) that you are tougher than a stomach bug or more macho than a head cold? The answer is yes, if you ask most Americans, who feel a noted pressured to come to work even when we’re sick.

Of course, many people simply cannot afford to be sick, such as those who work for an hourly wage, in non-union positions, part time, or in other non-health benefit capacities. When people don’t have access to paid sick days, it’s often left to the discretion of sympathetic managers.

The fact that people are compromising their health to make ends meet should be more than enough to prompt better policies and health benefits for people whose employers don’t offer sick-day benefits. And the impetus to stay home when sick should not be on workers alone, but also for policy-makers and leadership. But for most white-collar workers in professional industries in open workspaces with flexible work-from-home policies, there’s really no excuse.

I’ve heard plenty of people brag about not taking sick days, like it’s a badge of honor. Maybe it’s a hangover from elementary school when we were rewarded for having perfect attendance. But there were plenty of things we did then that we no longer do now, like eating our boogers and wearing Velcro shoes.

In case you need more incentive to encourage employees to use sick days or stay home when contagious, scholars have found a direct connection between paid sick days and preventative care that keeps workers healthier. A study from Florida Atlantic University showed a 26% to 85% increase in people accessing preventative healthcare when they were given 10 or more sick days a year.

So please remember: Staying home helps sick employees get back to work faster, healthy employees a safe distance from those germs, and increases the wellbeing of our work culture all around.

So please, don’t be a hero. If you feel sick, stay at home.

Oh, and get better soon.