Flu Season Etiquette: A Field Guide to Being Sick at Work

Leah Bourne
Trooping of the Colour Celebration at Buckingham Palace

Photo: Wenn.

The flu is everywhere this winter. It’s at the grocery store where the checkout person is sneezing, on the public bus where you’re sitting next to someone who can’t stop hacking, and the most problematic, at work, where the co-worker you practically share a desk with has been wheezing for weeks.

According to a 2014 OfficeTeam survey, seven in 10 workers say they come to work when they’re feeling sick, not wanting to take time off. This is a particularly frightening statistic considering the Center of Disease Control says people with the flu can spread the virus to people up to six feet away, mostly from droplets made when they sneeze, cough, or even just talk. People can also get the flu by touching objects or surfaces that have the virus on it.

MORE: How To Make Your Workplace Healthier 

Indeed, the workplace is a minefield for illness, and soldiering on when you’re under the weather isn’t only bad for your own health, but also the health of everyone around you.

Here, some etiquette rules to live by when you come down with something, with expert tips from Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, and a co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th edition. “Good flu etiquette is really about having consideration for other people and not getting them sick,” Post told us. Amen.

1. Know the difference between the flu and the cold. 

The flu and a cold come with similar symptoms, but it is crucial to know the difference between the two because the flu is highly contagious. Experts advise remembering the ‘F.A.C.T.S.’ acronym to decide if you have the flu—F stands for fever, A is for aches, C is for chills, T is for tiredness and S stands for sudden onset (unlike a cold, the flu strikes fast). If you do find that you have the flu, keep in mind that the virus is contagious for a solid five to seven days, that it can spread via airborne droplets, and can infect someone who is up to six feet away from it. Yikes is right.

2. If you’re contagious, just stay home. 

So you officially have the flu and you’re contagious. “I think the biggest flu etiquette offense is knowing you have flu symptoms and still going out instead of making an appointment with your doctor,” Post says. “If you know you’re not feeling well, you need to stay at home. That goes for work and travel and parties.”

3. Clean and disinfect the surfaces that you touch. 

Those who have the flu should consider it their responsibility to clean and disinfect that they touch including sink faucets and door handles. Disinfecting wipes are your new best friend—just while you’re sick, of course.

4. Be aware when you sneeze and cough. 

Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze and then throw the tissue away, immediately. Public health officials even suggest using anti-viral tissues since cold and flu viruses can live up to 24 hours on regular tissues. Find yourself without a tissue and need to sneeze or cough? Do it into your elbow, to prevent the virus from spreading.

5. Wash your hands and often.

If you come down with something, become slightly compulsive about washing your hands (and for at least 20 seconds with both soap and warm water). This is particularly important before eating, after using the restroom, and after being outside. Hand sanitizer can also come in handy if you find yourself unable to wash your hands, so make sure that if you are sick you are carrying some around with you.

6. Just stop sharing things.

Just stop sharing things when you’re sick—particularly utensils, dishes, and linens. During flu season, simply switch over to disposable products where and when you can.

7. Stop being so polite.

Not sure what to do when normal social etiquette requires that you go in for a hug or a handshake and you’re sick? “Just tell them ‘I’m sorry, I feel like I’m coming down with something but it’s nice to meet you,'” says Post. “And if they’re sick, I would keep it simple and tell them, ‘I’m sorry I can’t shake hands but it’s nice to meet you.’ Or shake hands and then immediately wash up.” Better safe than sorry.

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