Nov. 16, 2009 -- Fears of the H1N1 virus have prompted renewed interest in companies' sick leave policies, with many saying they don't have the sick days they need should the virus, commonly known as the swine flu, strike. But a number of Americans have shared a different concern with ABCNews.com: their sick co-workers are choosing not to stay home. Instead of taking the sick days they're entitled to, they're coming in to work anyway, readers told us, and putting their fellow officemates at risk.
"The people I work with could care less if they make someone sick," said Rena McVey, of Wathena, Kan., in a message to ABCNews.com. "They come to work running fevers and vomiting. Several of them think H1N1 is a joke."
McVey may have good reason to be concerned. Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and and the chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says that whether you have the flu or the common cold, you are most likely to spread the illness to others on the first two days you feel ill -- that's why, Schaffner said, you should stay home. (Those who are careful once they know they're sick can still unwittingly infect their co-workers and others: Schaffner said that cold and flu sufferers are also highly likely to spread germs on the day before their symptoms surface.)
Schaffner said that, despite the risk of infection, it's common for people to come to work ill, even among hospital workers.
"There's this certain macho quality -- 'I'm essential. I'm doing important things. We're tough and strong so we go to work despite all hazards,'" he said.
ABCNews.com readers apparently have encountered no shortage of these "macho" types and some are going to extremes to protect themselves. Below, you'll find their stories along with insights from Schaffer on staying healthy even when your co-workers aren't.
The "Sissy" Mask
My husband works in a large office environment. The first case of confirmed H1N1 occurred about two weeks ago and it has been spreading at the rate of about one new case every three days.
These people are coming to work while ill. (They're) not returning to work too soon -- actually coming to work while actively ill. No one in management has been stopping them; in fact, they've been condoning it.
My husband was sent to work on a project with someone over the weekend. This person showed up obviously ill. My husband immediately left to get N95 masks and hand sanitizer, which the ill person refused to use (but my husband did).
Later, another person showed up and also refused to use any protection. A few days later he came to work sick and exposed others. My husband has explained to these people that our whole family is at risk. I have asthma and a heart problem. My son has asthma which becomes severe when he has a respiratory infection. I have a disabled daughter in fragile health with a weak immune system. These people just don't care.
(My husband) has been wearing a mask to work because the people sitting around him are sick and they make fun of him. Someone took a mask and wrote "sissy" on it. What kind of a man thinks it is "manly" to put others at risk? If I ever encounter these people, it will be a memorable experience for them, I assure you.
-- Sue, town not provided.
Schaffner says that there is no data showing that N95 masks -- heavy-duty surgical masks -- actually protect users in community environments. Your best bet, he said, is to keep your distance from your sick colleagues. Close, personal contact is the main way the flu virus is transmitted and just having a conversation with a sick person standing within three to four feet away from you can put you at risk, he said.
Phoning In Swine Flu?
What I hate is that when colleagues need to use a nearby phone and because mine happens to be convenient or right outside of the conference room, that they think nothing of coming right up to my desk and start picking up my handset.
I would prefer if they think about this for a moment -- to perhaps hit the speakerphone on my phone instead of using my handset and passing on any of their germs??!!! Most of the time, it's only as simple as chasing down another colleague who forgot about a meeting in the conference room. But seriously, in this age of H1N1, I seriously have no desire to share my handset with anyone.
-- Jeannette Tam, San Francisco
Schaffner says that phones and other inanimate objects don't account for a substantial amount of flu transmissions. It can happen, he said, but it's "a byway of transmission, not a highway of transmission …,It's a little like asking me can you walk from New York to San Francisco. The answer is yes, but most of us take planes, busses, cars etc."
Schaffner says you should consider gently urging ill co-workers to take a sick day but company leadership, he said, should also encourage sick employees to do the same. In the story below, a man explains how after his own efforts failed, a boss's orders may have been what finally led a sick colleague to go home.
Ordered to Get His Temperature Taken
A co-worker friend of mine, Ashley, was out on a Wednesday and didn't even call in to let the boss know he was sick. We subsequently found out that he didn't call in because he was so ill. Ashley showed up on Thursday looking like hell. I asked him how he felt, he said terrible. I asked him if he had a fever "yesterday" (and) he said yes.
I asked him if he had a fever today, he said "I don't know, I didn't take it." I plead with him to go to the nurses' building and get his temp taken. We work on a campus of 500 and had been instructed not to come to work if we had a fever. I reminded Ashley (that) none of us had access to H1N1 vaccine and that I had a 9 month-old, another co-worker had kids with asthma, and another co-worker's wife was 6 months pregnant.
I told him he should leave if he had a fever otherwise no one cared if he stayed. He refused to go get his temperature taken so I emailed our conversation to my manager and asked my manager to insist that he go get his temperature taken. My manager replied and said that Ashley will go get his temperature taken and if he has a fever he will be going home. Ashley never returned.
Ashley is a good work friend of mine and thankfully didn't hold a grudge.
-- Stacey Sproul, Rockwall, Texas
Hand Sanitizer Heaven
It is me, myself that is getting paranoid about flu germs and germs in general.
My co-workers and myself use sanitizer constantly. We are a team of credit analysts at a leasing company in Mt. Laurel (N.J.). We all have it on our desks and we also have large bottles located all over the office and in the rest rooms.
Everyone is constantly putting it on. It starts a chain effect. If one person is putting on hand sanitizer and talking to someone else, that other person starts to put it on.
I myself must put it on at least 15 times a day if not more. The skin on my fingers was peeling from too much alcohol. It's made people not just cautious but almost germophobic.
… I have antibacterial wipes and sanitizer in car, purse, etc. It's becoming a real job to keep "germ free."
-- Ida Bove, Deptford, N.J.
We have the full range. Some people who have been sneezing, coughing, not covering their mouth. Others who are not washing their hands after using the facilities.
We have had one confirmed H1N1 case in the office. Since then, I am wearing a surgical mask when I have to use the men's room, and using hand sanitizer probably 8 times/day. I also wipe down my cubiclel with wipes, and spray the area with disinfectant spray at the start of each business day.
-- Arthur Smith, Worcester, Mass.
While, as Schaffer said, the benefits of surgical masks are unclear, both Bove and Smith are smart to use hand sanitizer. But Schaffer also warned that frequent use -- along with frequent handwashing -- can result in dry skin. Schaffer recommends using moisturizing lotion to prevent cracking. Simple lotions you can purchase at any store, especially those with lanolin, should do the trick.
Blame It on the Kids
Just this morning, it seems like everyone in the office came in with horror stories about their kids being sick. They can't just stop at saying they are sick, they give the details! Makes you feel sick just hearing about it.
Then there are the ones that refuse to get their shots and come in sick. It's like they enjoy making everyone else miserable.
-- Ellen, Jacksonville, S.C.
Schaffer said the main way flu is transmitted is through children, who then spread it to others.
"Children are most susceptible because of their close contact. They just interact with each other physically with much closer proximity, they're less hygenic and biologically, they actually shed more virus and they shed virus for a more prolonged period of time than adults."
"As we like to joke, children have the distribution franchsie for influenza viruses," he said. "They spread it among themselves and then of course they bring it home and potentially infect parents, family members and visitors."