my boss keeps coming to work sick

A reader writes:

My supervisor is constantly sick. She comes to work ill, and claims her young son has gotten her sick. She coughs into her hand and touches the phone and other desk items we share, effectively spreading her germs far and wide. Our team works close together, which puts the rest of us at risk for getting sick. As much as we arm ourselves with hand sanitizers, Clorox Wipes, Lysol, flu shots, and, in the case of one colleague, rubber gloves, sometimes we catch her illnesses.

I have tried to discuss this with her, coming from a place of concern and asking her if she’s seen a doctor, but she laughed and dismissed me. I approached her boss about talking to her, but she wouldn’t because it was “awkward.” (She really used that word.) Our organization lacks human resources, so I don’t know where else to turn.

Do you have advice for handling this situation delicately and with care, so my colleagues and I can remain healthy?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 94 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Aveline

    There are two issues. The first is coming in sick. The second is she seems to take no steps to not spread the disease.

    People who have poor judgment about coming in when they should stay home or people who, for whatever reason, feel they really can’t stay home can still mitigate the risks.

    A friend, a public health nurse, wrote up guidelines for a former company of mine. Most of it is common sense. From what I remember:

    (1) Wear a mask. Yes, it looks dopey, but it mitigates the risk to others.
    (2) Wash your hands as frequently as possible. If not possible, use hand sanitizer like it’s going out of style.
    (3) Carry facial tissues, mints, water, etc. Whatever you need to keep your coughing and bodily fluids to yourself.
    (4) Carry sanitizing wipes and wipe down anything you touch immediately after use.
    (5) Do not touch common food, food prep items, coffee pots, etc. Use your own cups you take home or use disposable.
    (6) Do not shake hands or hug someone. “I fear I may be coming down with something” will usually be greeted with some variant “Thanks for thinking of my wellbeing”

    As for encouraging her to stay home, perhaps its time for the company to issue a statement/policy on coming in when sick. A lot of people want to use their sick days for fun/personal stuff and want to “work through being sick” but even if their motives aren’t selfish (e.g., “I have to get a project done to get a promotion) they need to understand the cost to others.

    Sometimes just reminding people how their choices impact others is sufficient.

    Reply
    1. Michele

      The other day, I stayed home sick. My dog went into the yard of the new neighbor (no fence, but she knows better). I went over to get her, and of course that was when I met him. He was very nice and has two dogs of his own. I felt bad for refusing to shake his hand, but I kept telling him that I was sick and didn’t want to get him sick. Hopefully we can speak again soon under better circumstances.

      Reply
    2. Arduino

      Those face masks are common in Asia. Japan it’s considered very ride to go out in public sick without a face mask.

      Reply
      1. Vicki

        Whenever I see someone here (in the San Francisco Bay Area) wearing a facemask, I always wonder if they’re sick or worried about other people being sick.

        I also wonder why they’re not at home.

        Reply
        1. myswtghst

          Plenty of people wear them to avoid the germs of others, and even if they are sick, they’re doing you a favor the person coughing into their hands and touching all the doorknobs isn’t. ;)

          Granted, this is a subject that hits close to home for me – my Dad goes on the list for a lung transplant tomorrow, and often wears a mask (especially in busy public places) as a way to avoid germs. Without the mask, he’d pretty much never be able to leave the house, which would be really rough for him.

          Reply
        2. WildLandLover

          My daughter wears a mask to help protect her from bad air quality in the winter (I live in an inversion-prone valley with over a million people). If she didn’t, her asthma would be so much worse . . .

          Reply
  2. Justme

    It’s one thing if you’re sick and can sequester yourself in your own office to get something important done. This situation is not that.

    Reply
  3. KTB

    I am fortunate to have worked for several companies that allow and encourage working from home, especially when sick. I currently work in an open plan office, so germs have a tendency to spread like wildfire around here.

    Alison’s advice about peer pressure and using the team as a united front is spot-on. My current company has kind of a crappy sick leave policy, but are very flexible with WFH, so I am very straightforward with my team and my boss. Our general rule is that if you feel sick, just stay home. From a productivity standpoint, it’s better for one person to stay home and monitor email from their couch for a day or two than to come in and lay out the rest of the team for a week.

    I also like Aveline’s advice on the company policy, since sometimes people are stubborn and won’t listen to their coworkers. Good luck!

    Reply
  4. Bethlam

    And if a group of you are talking to your manager, don’t forget to make the point regarding the impact to the company; by her actions, she’s causing additional employees to miss work and causing lost work time that could be prevented if she used her sick time or, at the very least, was aware of how her actions affected others and then took appropriate precautions.

    Reply
    1. hermit crab

      Yes, sneeze like a vampire! :)

      (Some public health agency ran an adorable PSA-type ad a couple years ago at Halloween, featuring a cartoon vampire with his cape pulled up over his face and a caption like “I vant you… to use your elbow!”)

      Reply
      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        OMG that is amazing. I’ve been jokingly tell people to sneeze like they’re dabbing, but vampiring is even better.

        Reply
    2. hedgehog

      If I’m particularly snotty, I’m going to sneeze into my hand (hopefully with a tissue, if I have enough time to get there) and then go wash my hands, because it’s easier to clean snot off my hands than to get snot out of my clothes.

      If I just have the sneezes with no underlying snottiness, then I do elbow.

      Reply
      1. Artemesia

        I keep a tissue in my hand or at hand when I am snotty so I can cough into a tissue. Wiping down common spaces, doorknobs, keyboards really helps.

        My son and I both started doing this — wiping down keyboards in shared spaces before I did film editing and he did his work; just that and religiously washing our hands after public transport and training ourselves not to touch our faces cut our colds by about two thirds.

        Reply
  5. Augusta Sugarbean

    “We need you to speak up on our behalf” is such a great line. Thank you. We are banding together to try and get management to improve and one of the issues is not feeling like anyone is advocating for us with the agency. This is exactly the kind of language we need.

    Reply
  6. designbot

    I’d say there’s another category of business where this is the employer’s fault: the office that has a generous sick leave policy on paper, but where the culture of constant deadlines puts the burden on employees to figure out how to actually use their sick days. I’d say this is the norm in my industry, where people come to work sick not because we don’t have the days or don’t care, but because if we stay home, a deadline won’t be met, our firm may be fired by the client, or cost the client thousands of dollars which the firm would potentially have to pick up, and it would be a huge deal, because there is no notion of ‘coverage’ or backup of any kind. Things simply have to be done when they have to be done, clients set unrealistic deadlines in the first place, and there is no room for us to have normal human issues like the occasional illness.
    What’s a conscientious person to do in that sort of environment?

    Reply
      1. designbot

        I guess I was hoping more for suggestions on how to help people actually be able to take the sick time they need rather than come to work and make them take additional measures to keep everyone else well.

        Reply
        1. OhBehave

          There are lots of instances when an employee has to go to work no matter what or they lose their jobs. It’s a horrible situation.

          Would this be a case for working from home? It really doesn’t sound like your company cares if others get sick because an ill coworker HAD to come to work. Is this an unspoken rule of thumb?

          Is there no negotiation of the contracts your company signs? If not, there may not be much you can do. It sounds as if the deadline are unrealistic, which is a given because clients rarely know how long a project will take. I’m sure competition is such that your managers have to accept the terms or the client goes to the next firm.

          If there is a significant drop in performance due to two or three people being so sick, then that may be what will get through to the powers that be. Hit them in the bank account. I’m not saying that ill people should slack off, just that this is what could happen. If nothing changes, those who worked ill should use a sick day after the deadline has been met!

          What these companies forget is that to retain quality, loyal employees, they need to have some flexibility and actually adhere to what their employee handbook has to say about benefits such as sick time.

          Reply
    1. MillersSpring

      Another similar issue is workplaces where employees are compelled to work when sick because they fear being perceived as a low performer, not getting their work done (or done well) or being otherwise identified as unnecessary. They worry about layoffs and don’t want to risk their livelihood.

      Reply
  7. Critter

    Jeez. When you cough and sneeze, use your elbow please. She could at least do that, and then have wipes around. That’s the part that’s really standing out to me.

    Reply
    1. LSP

      My 3-year old son knows to cough or sneeze in his elbow.

      The only person I know who doesn’t do this at work is my sister-in-law. She’s a physical therapist and works with a lot of immuno-compromised patients. Her hospital told her that if she sneezes or coughs into her elbow, she could transfer germs to her patient when she is helping them move. She has been told to use her hands, then immediately wash them.

      Of course, for the rest of us who have jobs that don’t involve basically hugging people with lowered immunity, we can use our elbows. :)

      Reply
    2. an anon is an anon

      …….I’m 30 years old and this is the first time I’ve ever heard that you should sneeze or cough in your elbow. I was taught to cover your mouth with your hands by my family and in school and by doctors when I was a kid.

      Is this a cultural or regional thing?

      Reply
      1. an anon is an anon

        I should add that I always see people use their hands and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use their elbow.

        Reply
      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Where are you based? Because it’s become the prevailing public health advice for most of the U.S.

        Reply
        1. Solite

          If you are US based, but don’t have kids or have a job where there aren’t government posters up, it’s entirely conceivable not to have heard of this.

          My office is now in a US government rented building. I see a lot of informational posters I never saw before.

          Reply
        2. an anon is an anon

          East Coast. I think Solite is right though. I don’t have kids or a job with health notices like this, and I don’t know anyone with kids who would have been taught this. I asked around at work and on facebook and twitter as well as my friend group and only a few people had heard about this. Most of them said they never heard that you’re supposed to cough in your elbow.

          Reply
      3. Silver Cormorant

        You cough into your elbow because it’s a surface that’s always convenient to you in the short time before you cough, and you’re not likely to be touching anything else with it. You’re constantly touching things with your hands that other people will then be touching with *their* hands, and it’s usually not feasible to wash your hands every single time you cough.

        Whenever I see someone cough or sneeze into their hands and then proceed to keep using their hands as if nothing happened, I physically recoil in disgust and think less of that person from that point on, just the same as if I witnessed them leaving the bathroom without washing their hands.

        Reply
      4. Anna

        I believe it’s become far more common recently than it was. I was taught my hand or my coat (I’ve lived in different countries, and have seen the same thing). I hadn’t really heard of the elbow thing until probably five or six years ago when my sister told me about it as she was entering the medical field.

        Reply
        1. Michele

          I think there was some sort of generational switch when people came to their senses. I remember being taught to cough into my hand as a kid, and now I just wonder what they were thinking. In some ways, that seems worse that just coughing into the air. My hands are definitely going to touch stuff. I still see older people cough into their hands all the time, but somewhere along the line, the elbow thing happened.

          Reply
          1. Rachael

            Yes, I was taught to cough/sneeze into my hand when I was a kid (I am 37). My little brother who was born 10 years after I was learned to do it in his elbow in kindergarten. I remember thinking when I saw him do it (when I was 15 or so) that it was disgusting because “my shirt sleeve would get wet”. I insisted that he was doing it wrong. I remember it being a whole argument….lol.

            Luckily, I learned the error of my ways…..

            Reply
          2. Anxa

            We were taught to cough into our hands, because you could wash them. You can’t wash the air.

            Know I still do it, beside knowing all of the advice, because I don’t want to get my elbow germs all over the place, and am a pretty rigorous handwasher (and of course I don’t even touch the door until I’ve watched)

            Reply
      5. Critter

        I didn’t know it until Daniel Tiger told me. I actually didn’t know much about How to Keep From Getting Sick before I had kids.

        Reply
  8. dkfjoie

    Also in addition to mentioning immunocompromised people that would be more affected, don’t forget about the temps or other people that do not have sick leave. For them getting sick and not being able to go to work means loss of income.

    Reply
    1. LSP

      As someone who cherishes every day of sick leave like it’s gold due to chronic migraines and a son in pre-school, I get pissed when someone is spreading germs around unnecessarily. I need my sick days to deal with migraines when my meds just don’t cut it. I don’t need someone’s cold or flu knocking me out.

      Reply
    2. JM in England

      I said exactly this to a perm employee who came in sick when I was a temp many years ago. Didn’t care at the time if this put my job on the line, it was the principle of the thing!

      Reply
  9. Fiona the Lurker

    On a related but admittedly tangential note – do phones ever get sanitised these days? A long time ago in my first job we had a lady who came round every Friday morning and cleaned all the phones in our office, but I’ve never seen or heard of it being done since. Was it at all effective, or was it just something management put in place to show that they cared about the staff? I’ve always wondered!

    Reply
      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        This is my experience, too. We don’t expect custodial services to do it; some of us disinfect our phones regularly (on our own), while others do not.

        Here’s another disgusting thing to try out when you have an hour to kill or are on a conference call in your office—try cleaning out your keyboard by turning it upside down and shaking it.

        Reply
    1. Circles

      I clean my phone at least weekly. No one else uses my phone, but I still clean it. I’ve seen some phones that have makeup or “stuff” built up on the earpiece. Yuck.

      Reply
    2. TC

      This happened in my last office. Once she was done sanitising your phone, she’d put a cute little sticker on it explaining how clean it was. The smell drove me crazy but I knew it was for the best!

      Reply
      1. LSP

        I was actually thinking of Golgafrincham (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) that sent away a shipful of “useless” people, including telephone sanitizers, only for the whole planet to be killed off by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone.

        Reply
    3. Artemesia

      I’ve never worked anywhere where this is done. I had my private phones so didn’t do it routinely but the first thing I do when I enter a hotel room is sanitize the doorknobs, flush handle, remote control and phone. The second thing I do it check for bedbugs. About 30 years ago my husband and I woke up to blood smeared sheets and bedbugs and bites in a very nice Amsterdam boutique hotel — this was long before bedbugs were in the news. It was one of the creepiest moments in my life and I never want to go there again.

      I think if you want to have sanitary phones, you have to assume you will do it yourself. Same with keyboards and mouses that are shared. Just clean them before working.

      Reply
  10. Zip Silver

    Easy solution to this. Whenever she coughs into her hands, rather than her elbow, verbally go “eww”. Don’t overemphasize it. It usually doesn’t take a conversation, it’s just social pressure and she’ll stop it.

    Reply
  11. DCompliance

    I laughed when I read “she claims her young son got her sick”. So OP does not believe that’s why she is sick? Whenever my brother-in-law and his wife get each other sick they always blame each other and I always think to my self: no, it’s because you have bad hygiene and don’t disinfect. Yes, I am being judgy.

    Reply
    1. Leatherwings

      That’s ridiculous. Being around sick people makes it easy to catch viral infections like colds. Especially when you have a kid, that kind of interaction is inevitable and not necessarily the result of of having bad hygiene. This is not only needlessly judgmental, it’s also not correct.

      Reply
      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Exactly this. It’s true that there are all sorts of grimy things on frequently used, shared surfaces (e.g., bathroom doorknobs, phones). But you don’t get a viral/bacterial URI from failing to disinfect—you usually get sick because someone’s ejecting their virus into the air or you’re touching a surface that has been recently made germy. It’s much more likely that your brother-in-law and his wife are getting sick from one another than from “failure to disinfect.”

        I don’t think OP is questioning how she got sick. She’s noting that her boss knows she’s sick and is coming into work, anyway.

        Reply
      2. DCompliance

        Kids, yes? That is different. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law don’t have any kids. So it is different then a situation with kids. When talking to my in-laws about asked what my husband and I do to avoid getting sick, I talked about hand washing and disinfecting and my-sister-in law said they don’t do that because they will try to avoid touching each stuff. Sorry Leatherwings, I should have explained that in the beginning.

        Reply
        1. Leatherwings

          Well OP said the boss has a kid, so whatever. And yeah, when you live in an exposed space you can disinfect all you want and still have your partner cough in the middle of the night on your pillow and bam, you’re sick. Perfectly hygienic people get each other sick all the time and it’s absurd to suggest they’re filthy or something as a result.

          And really, is the standard for hygiene that absolutely everything anyone ever touches must get wiped down? Because if so, this would have to be all the time as people are typically contagious before they show symptoms. I’m not wiping down every door handle every day for the rest of my life and that doesn’t make me un-hygienic.

          Reply
          1. Anna

            Pretty much. There’s an artist whose work I love that won’t shake hands at conventions because he doesn’t want to get sick. On the one hand I get it. On the other hand I ALWAYS want to ask him how many handrails he’s touched on any given day. Or doorknobs. Or how many times has he rearranged his table after people have looked at stuff.

            Getting sick does not equal bad hygiene any more than not getting sick means you’re super hygienic. It’s more important not to touch your face/nose/eyes/mouth with your hands than it is to wipe down every surface constantly.

            Reply
          2. DCompliance

            Wow! My brother-in-law and sister-in-law are the only couple I know always get each other sick, meaning every time one of them gets a cold, the other one always gets it. I didn’t know so many other couples always give each other their colds. I guess I learned.

            Reply
            1. paul

              you’re generally contagious before you’re symptomatic. given that couples can regularly exchange fluids and come into intimate contact, it shouldn’t be particularly surprising that couples tend to get sick together.

              I can count on it pretty regularly: if my wife or I are sick, the other’s got better than 50/50 odds of being sick…because we’ve probably kissed, had sex, shared food, etc in the last 24-48 hours.

              Reply
            2. OhBehave

              In our house, it’s rare that my husband catches our cold. It did happen this month and then he nicely gave it back to me! I could always count on getting sick after nursing my kids back to health. It’s just the nature of the beast. I am rarely ill now because my kids are teens and when they are sick, they sequester themselves in their rooms.

              Sanitizing everything in sight is great, but one errant cough or sneeze and all bets are off.

              Reply
            3. Parenthetically

              My husband and I have had the same cold twice in the last 6 weeks. I’ve joked that it’s how we bond now. Only difference is he always gets a head cold with a sore throat and I always get a chest cold.

              Reply
        2. Artemesia

          My husband and I almost never catch each other’s colds and we sleep in the same bed. I have always assumed it is because we get an early dose of the germ and can have an effective immune response and so resist it. We do have separate bathrooms and we do wash our hands and particularly wash up when preparing foods. But I would guess that 8 our of 10 colds either of us have do not get passed to the other one.

          Reply
          1. Michele

            My husband has a much better immune system than I do. I drives me crazy because I have healthier dietary and exercise habits. Like you, we have separate bathrooms, and the sick person doesn’t prepare any food, except for maybe opening a can of soup. He almost never gets a cold from me, but if he gets sick, I am guaranteed to get sick.

            Reply
      3. Michele

        I dread the first two weeks of school because I work with several people who have young children. We always end up with a cold virus going around work. You can be as careful as you want, but kids will spread the germs. All it takes is for a kid to sneeze onto mom’s purse, mom handles the purse then handles the coffee pot, and boom! Outbreak.

        Reply
  12. Mena

    Ugh, this is my experience with extended family hosting holidays only to arrive and find a very sick, coughing, sneezing person in the kitchen preparing food, handling cutlery, handling dishes. Last Christmas there were 16 of us and 11 of us were sick 5 days later.

    Reply
    1. Artemesia

      I am ancient and I still remember the Thanksgiving where 22 relatives descended on our 1000 sq ft house with one bathroom and one of the brought a couple of kids with 24 hour flu — everyone got sick, most within the next day and after they left my family of four were sick as cats. I was only 8, this happened over 60 years ago and I still remember what a misery it was. Colds are bad enough but anyone who brings norovirus into the workplace or someone’s event should be stoned on the town square.

      Reply
  13. Zahra

    There’s one more thing that no one has mentioned. Kids get, on average, 8-10 colds per year. There’s simply no way that one could take all those days off. Working from home that much may not be acceptable in an office. Especially if one is coming back from pregnancy leave (not that we know whether that’s the case here).

    I’d tell you to focus your advice on proper hygiene practice (sneeze in elbow, wash hands, avoid touching communal stuff, etc.) instead of “don’t come in sick”.

    Reply
    1. Princess Carolyn

      Why do kids get so many dang colds? (I don’t remember being sick that much as a child, but I was probably an anomaly, so I don’t doubt your math.) I would be miserable if I got 8-10 colds in a senior year. Heck, I moan and whine about the one or two I get every year.

      Reply
      1. Zahra

        Their body needs to build up immunity to the different viruses by encountering them. However, they’re not necessarily intense colds. They may be very light colds. And if the mother is breastfeeding, the colds will pass much faster and be less intense than otherwise.

        Reply
    2. Sfigato

      Yeah, my kid gets sick all the time, and I end up with her germs. I generally will not call in sick for a cold if it isn’t too major. I make an effort to keep my germs to myself, but if I isolated myself from the world every time I got the sniffles I’d use up all my sick and vacation time. And my wife tends to get colds that turn into coughs that last for weeks. She’s not going to call in sick for three weeks because she’s coughing.

      Reply
    3. Not So NewReader

      This is what I was thinking, if she is sick “all the time” then maybe she end up taking months off from work.

      Reply
  14. Michele

    It might help to ask the boss if there are any responsibilities that you could take care of while she is sick. She might feel that the work won’t get done if she stays home, so having people in place that things can be delegated to would help.

    Reply
  15. OhBehave

    Her boss sounds like a gem. You can bet if she was getting sick every month, she would say something.

    If nothing comes from the group approach, find the biggest container of Lysol wipes and plunk them on the desk. Any time she coughs or sneezes into her hand (eww) and touches communal property, wipe it down! If she squawks, tell her you are sick and tired of being sick and will do anything you can to avoid illness.

    My mom has COPD and I CAN’T see her if I even have minor sniffles.

    Reply
  16. Kate

    Ooof. I have a toddler and have had a cold (or a series of colds) since December. If I didn’t come in with a cold I would never be able to work. Though I do have my own office and try to practice really good hand hygiene. Toddlers are just little disease vectors, unfortunately.

    Reply
    1. SpEd Teacher

      I’m in the same boat. I have a toddler in daycare, I am a teacher so I’m constantly surrounded by germy little ones, and I used up all my sick leave already dealing with some massive kidney stones. I can’t go to the doctor for a cold… so am I just supposed to stay home and hope I get a sub for three weeks out of the month? If I wasn’t already super conscientious of washing my hands and coughing into my elbow I’d think this could have been written by one of my teaching assistants!

      Reply
  17. cncx

    this is my pet peeve. i work in one of those offices with a generous sick leave policy (everyone has a laptop! everyone has a company cell! we have a way to divert our desk phones to our laptop! sick days are NOT counted so you can home office sick or just sleep it off!) and yet people still want to come in and be a hero even when they have back office jobs. i have gotten three colds in the past three years and both times it was right after someone (the same person) who DID NOT NEED TO BE THERE came in sick. one year this person got one of our client facing managers sick, someone who spends forever on planes. so i am sure we had a little epidemic from that one little cold.

    I agree with AAM that you can’t always know where or who you got sick from; at the same time, what irks me about OP’s boss is that she is touching common property sick. . I know sometimes people have to come in, i know some people have kids who get sick so much it isn’t possible to take off for every sniffle…as much as i hate people coming in sick , i do get that it has to happen. but for the love of all that is holy i wish people who came in sick would at least try to mitigate it with stuff like hand washing, masks, one kleenex per “episode”, sneezing into elbow, etc.

    Reply

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