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December 07, 2017
Sick at Work--Should I Stay or Should I Go?

If you are sick at work, should you stay or should you go home? If you supervise workers who are sick, is it more productive to let them stay or send them home? The following information may help you decide the best, and healthiest, course of action. First, let’s look at some facts about the common cold and the flu and their effects on worker productivity.

Productivity Costs

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, employers collectively lose about 15 million workdays each year to the common cold, rivaling the total 17.6 million lost workdays for serious injuries and illnesses reported to federal OSHA by private businesses in a recent year. The average worker endures about four colds each year. Many more workdays are lost when employees have to leave work to care for a child with a cold or flu.

The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reported a study showing that employees who work with a cold lose about 6 hours of productivity for the duration of the cold. If each worker has four colds per year, that comes to 24 hours’, or 3 days’, worth of lost productivity per worker annually. The collective loss for U.S. businesses to the common cold is $20 billion to $25 billion annually.

Is It a Cold or the Flu?

Many people use the terms “cold” and “flu” interchangeably. Though both are respiratory illnesses, they are different in some of their symptoms and their primary pathways to infection.

Cold. According to the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the common cold is a virus that typically infects the nose and throat. Bacteria do not cause colds; bacterial infections (usually sinusitis or ear infection) can result from complications of a cold. There are 200 viruses known to cause the symptoms of a cold; some infect the nose, while others infect the upper respiratory system. Nose viruses are most active during early fall, spring, and summer, while upper respiratory viruses are most active in winter and early spring. Colds can occur any time during the year. Symptoms usually appear gradually, a couple days after the initial infection.

Influenza (flu). Influenza, or the flu, is an infection of the respiratory system caused by an influenza virus. The most severe flus are caused by the influenza type A and B viruses. Swine flu (H1N1) and avian flu (H5N1) are both type A. Type C viruses cause mild illness or no symptoms at all. The flu is most commonly spread when viral particles are emitted to the air by coughing and sneezing. The virus also spreads when a person touches a surface contaminated with viral particles and then touches his or her eyes or nose.

The flu is most common during the winter into spring. Symptoms begin abruptly (often with a fever), are usually more severe than cold symptoms, and typically last a week or more. Complications from the flu can lead to pneumonia.

How the Cold and Flu Spread

Colds are spread more readily when people are indoors, where the chances increase for physical contact with contaminated surfaces and inhalation of airborne viral particles.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people are most contagious:

  • For colds, the first 2 to 3 days after infection, and usually not contagious at all by day 10
  • For flu, almost immediately after infection (a day before symptoms develop) and for 5 days after symptoms appear

Primary pathways to infection:

  • Eyes and nose. Cold viruses are very hardy; they can survive up to 3 hours on surfaces. A highly common pathway to infection is touching an infected surface with the hands, then touching the nose or rubbing the eyes. The virus enters the tear ducts or sinuses, and infects the nasal passage. Flu viruses can also spread via this pathway.
  • Inhalation. Breathing in viral particles is the most common pathway for flu infection. It is also a pathway for cold viruses when infected airborne mucus droplets are inhaled into the nose or throat.

Ideal conditions for spread:

  • Colds and flus spread most easily where people congregate indoors.
  • The most common cold-causing viruses survive better when humidity is low, especially during cold weather.
  • Dry air makes the lining of the nose drier and probably more vulnerable to viral infection.

Psychological and environmental factors. Research suggests that psychological stress and allergic diseases that affect the nose or throat may affect the chances of being infected by a cold virus. There is no scientific evidence that exercise or diet affect the chances of getting a cold.

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