Question: I work in a small office and I share a cube space with another person. They are constantly sick and coming in to work even though they should be staying at home. I know there have been times I have gotten a cold and flu from them. What I can do about it? She says she has to come into work because she is afraid of losing her job. Is she not concerned with other people in the office getting her germs?
L.K. in Texas
Answer: This is a difficult situation in many work environments. As organizations work more in teams, the likelihood that you will work in closer proximity with someone increases. With that closeness, is the threat of sharing illnesses. It is a widespread problem; according to the Monster Meter Poll nearly 75 percent of U.S. Workers go into work sick.
The top reasons cited are: work is too busy for me to miss a day (38%) and I’m afraid of losing my job (33%).
Trying to reconcile these fears is difficult. It requires looking at the problem differently – from both the employee and management point of view. Often there is too much work to complete and the thought of not being there increases the employee’s level of stress. Companies are continuing to find ways to reduce non-productive employee costs.
If the employee does come in, chances are very little work is getting done. It is simply a matter of face time. Once they share their sickness with other co-workers, more people will either take time off or lose productivity because of their actions.
Taking in account one person’s absence vs. the cost of many absences is a more prudent approach for management. Policies solicit specific behaviors. Companies often rigidly define the consequences of absences, often leading up to discharge.
Co-workers who suffer from poor performance, due to loss of productivity from absences or poor quality of work will also make the extra effort to show up if their job is on the line. Even high performing employees who may be experiencing a rocky year of health issues will come into work for fear of dismissal. The fear of being let go knows no boundaries.
The best time to have a discussion with your co-worker is before they get sick. Gain agreement on what each person is willing to do. They may not feel they can stay home because of job pressures, so there are some things you can do or ask your colleague to do if they must come into work.
If you have this discussion when they are feeling ill, there is a greater chance they will become defensive rather than try to be accommodating with you. Talk about what you are willing to do to keep the workspace free of germs and ask her what she is willing to do.