Is the colleague who sits next to you blowing his nose into a handkerchief, complaining about a “mild fever” that has been lingering for more than a week? Chances are that he has flu. He should be consulting a doctor, and if the doctor so recommends, should take a couple of days off to recuperate.
“It may sound alarmist but the truth is that if your colleague is suffering from an infectious disease like flu or common cold, and it is only getting worse with time (lack of attention to the problem, severity of the disease, or a weak immune system), you are 30-35% more likely to catch their infection owing to proximity, since flu is highly contagious,” says Anu Gupta, associate consultant (microbiology) at the Fortis Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre in New Delhi.
“The modern open workplace only increases this risk,” says Monica Mahajan, senior consultant (internal medicine), at the Max Super Speciality Hospital in the Capital. “The centrally air-conditioned halls increase the risk of people going down with air-borne infections. The same air gets circulated for hours on end, making the environment more contaminated with viruses and bacteria,” says Dr Mahajan.
Almost a quarter of companies lose around 14% of their annual working days (more than 50 days a year) owing to employee sickness, according to a 2007 study by the think tank Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, which covered 81 companies, across sectors, in the country.
“Why drag yourself to office if your body refuses to? Your productivity will be horribly low, the chances of your condition getting worse will be extremely high, and you could also put other people at risk,” says Dr Gupta.
Dr Gupta and Dr Mahajan say that a cough should not last more than a week if a person takes timely treatment. The problem is that with our busy schedules, many people don’t pay heed to such diseases, thinking “it is not something serious”. That can be a mistake, say both the doctors. So don’t ignore even a cold.
Presenteeism—working in office while being unwell—may serve no purpose, says Manish Kumar, assistant professor (organizational behaviour and HR management) at the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode. “It definitely has a motivational aspect, but when it comes to health, it’s not a good idea. You won’t get any brownie points.” Presenteeism can cut individual productivity by one-third or more, says a 2004 article in the Harvard Business Review. It can prove to be costly in monetary, health and performance terms as well, says Prof. Kumar. A 2014 study by Statistics Canada, the country’s statistical agency, found that loss of productivity from presenteeism was 7.5 times higher than that from absenteeism.
If you are unwell, but can’t ignore work because you don’t want to let your co-workers down, worry about work piling up, lack of sick leave, or a looming deadline, what should you do?
“There are situations, as (US Democratic presidential nominee) Hillary Clinton found out recently, where your most crucial few weeks of work and some kind of illness cruelly conspire to go hand in hand,” says Graham Allcott, founder of the UK-based Think Productive, which offers executive workshops and consultancy services for boosting productivity.
Clinton recently had to leave a memorial for 9/11 victims in New York early due to, as reports suggest, a combination of heat exhaustion and pneumonia. Later, she told TV channel CNN that she initially hadn’t thought her pneumonia “was a big deal”.
For situations when you don’t have flexibility, Allcott offers some suggestions: “Turn up the volume on your self-care: Even if you skip breakfast usually, never skip breakfast when you’re ill. Your body needs the fuel all the more when you’re pushing it hard. Likewise, rest as much as possible, drink lots of water to stay hydrated and try to avoid unnecessary stress.
“Treat it as a crisis mode: get help from your colleagues in finishing your work, so that there is nothing in your schedule that could be put off until you’re better. Because you will need some time for your body to recover once the deadline passes," he says.
It also might be a good idea to split your to-do list based on the level of energy you need for each task and prioritize only the things that are absolutely necessary, says Allcott. “So if you’re on a deadline, work on that particular activity, but also put an ‘Out of Office’ message on your email. And if you’re presenting at a conference, attend only the bits that need you there, and don’t try to get involved with the socializing in the evening,” he suggests.
Stay at home, and rest
Another option could be work from home, suggests Nishith Upadhyaya, head of advisory and knowledge at SHRM India, the local arm of the Society for Human Resource Management, an alliance of human resource (HR) managers from more than 160 countries. “You can straightaway tell your manager about your condition so that he/she can designate your work to someone else. If there’s a deadline, your manager can request other stakeholders and buy some time. The understanding needs to be there,” he adds.
Sucharita Palepu, global head of people policies and practices at Tech Mahindra, agrees: “Managers/supervisors need to be empathetic and should create a flexible, open environment.” The information technology services firm offers a three-day work-from-home policy a month in any case—this, Palepu says, can be extended if the need arises.
Dr Mahajan says there are a number of precautionary steps people can take to avoid infectious diseases. “Stay away from people who are already infected. Stay clean and hydrated at all times and lead a healthy life so that your immune system is strong,” she suggests.
Dr Gupta adds that it is also the responsibility of companies to ensure hygiene and proper ventilation at the workplace. “Office furniture and equipment, especially the pantry area, are breeding grounds for germs and bacteria. The stress should be on cleanliness at all times. After all, a team that feels well, works well,” she says.