Have you heard about the highly contagious koala flu that turns people into horrifying, albeit adorable, zombie marsupials who subsist only on human thigh meat and eucalyptus leaves?
No, you haven't, because it hasn't happened -- yet. When it does, we're probably all going to get it because of annoying co-workers who insist on coming to the office when they're sick.
Yep, humanity will meet its end thanks to Marge down in accounts receivable, who figured, despite the bad fever and hunger for human flesh, she'd suck it up and come to work.
That apocalyptic scenario might be slightly exaggerated, but it gets to the heart of a recent question from a reader who has had it with the socialist redistribution of germs: What is it about the modern-day work environment that encourages disease-carrying co-workers to come in and spread their viruses around the office park?
Turns out there are a couple things at play here.
First, there's an illogical sense in most workplaces that coming to work when you're under the weather demonstrates that you're a strong, devoted employee. That "I can work through anything" sensibility is often coupled with a fear that calling in sick will be viewed negatively by management.
A 2010 study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that nearly 40 percent of workers whose companies gave them paid sick days still reported going to work with a contagious illness such as the flu.
That's bad enough. But of the estimated 43 million U.S. workers who don't get paid sick time, 55 percent will go to work while ill.
To put that in slightly more stomach-turning terms, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, paid sick leave is unavailable to nearly 80 percent of food service and hotel workers.
"At the core, this is a public health issue," said Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families. "This is about people not serving food while they're sick and not taking care of children when they're sick. But the reason that it's a public health issue is there's an economic imperative for people to be going to work, especially in this business climate. People can't afford to stay home and they can't afford to miss work."
There's a growing national push to require companies, at least those of a certain size, to allow workers to accrue sick time.
In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city with a paid-sick-leave ordinance, allowing workers to accrue five or nine paid sick days a year, depending on the size of their company. Seattle's City Council passed a similar ordinance in September, and Connecticut passed a statewide sick-day law last year.
"There's definitely a movement, and it's an issue that a lot of groups have chosen to focus on," said Kevin Miller, a senior research associate at the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Miller's group did a recent study of the San Francisco ordinance and found that the typical worker used only three of the available sick days, and 25 percent didn't use any. That's a good indication that people aren't taking advantage of the system.
Employees also reported that their companies become more supportive of sick days being used when necessary, and six out of seven employers said implementing the ordinance did not hurt profitability.
Granted, that's one study of one city. But it certainly seems logical that a company can benefit from allowing workers paid time off: You reduce the spread of illness, which could hamper other workers; you build worker morale and can better retain good people; and, dare I say, it's simply the right thing to do.
At the heart of all of this, whether you receive paid sick days and are afraid to use them or get no sick days, is trust. A worker should never feel like he has to drag his weary body into the office just to be marked present for the day. And a manager should be able to trust the workers he or she oversees and believe that when they call in sick, they're truly sick, or have a sick child to tend to.
Easy to say, difficult to achieve, I know. But it's an ideal worth striving for.
If you work in an office where there's a sense that calling in sick will be frowned upon, bring it up to your boss. There's a good chance that the perception is inaccurate and the boss cares more than you think about keeping employees healthy. And an upfront and honest discussion about a disconnect between management and employees isn't going to do any harm.
Nobody wants to sit next to, or near, a coughing and hacking co-worker spewing germs like a confetti cannon. So use those sick days if you need to, and fight for them if you don't have them.
And please, when the koala flu finally hits, stay far, far away from me.
I'm allergic to eucalyptus, and my thighs are irresistibly tasty.
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