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Beware the office plague

Germy co-workers keep the season of sickness in full swing—is it OK to just stay home?

January 07, 2013|By Leonor Vivanco, @lvivanco | RedEye

Julie Ciaramella caught a cold in the middle of summer and dragged herself into work.

Her boss told her she looked miserable and said she should go home and get better. Her response: "But I still have work to do."

That's because Ciaramella, 27, a social media manager who lives in Lincoln Square, has a tough-it-out attitude like the 80 percent of office workers in a recent Staples poll who admit to coming to work even when they know they are sick. That's 20 percent more than the last time the annual flu-season survey was taken a year prior.

Already, the flu and colds are spreading through many Chicago cubicles. The workers who fight it can be spotted sniffling and coughing at their desks while others call in, use a sick day if they have one and stay home.

Employees who come into the office feel they are responsible for getting all their work done, said Tom Gimbel, CEO and president of LaSalle Network, a staffing and recruiting firm in Chicago.

"People feel pressure," he said. "It has less to do about worrying about their jobs and getting fired or downsized and more about, 'I want to do my job well,'" he said.

In past jobs, Gimbel hated being sick at home. "I felt worthless. I felt I wasn't contributing … I was bored. To me, it was a last resort," he said.

Michael Harrington, 29, of Boystown, doesn't want to get behind in his work. "I don't like having to play catch-up," said the intern at the Delta Institute, an environmental organization.

A few years ago, he woke up feeling crappy, went into work with the flu and got sent home. He tried to protest. "I didn't want to be looked at as being a slacker for not showing up even though I was sick," Harrington said.

He stays home only if he has a gastrointestinal issue, a headache that doesn't let him concentrate, is in pain or feels faint. And he went in last month when he had a cold.

"Lately, everyone is sick anyway so I don't know if it makes that big of a difference," Harrington said.

But self-proclaimed germophobe Lieryn Johnson, 22, wishes people would stay home when they're sick.

"If you are on the verge of being sick, potentially you could be spreading those germs around. That's obviously not good for the office," said Johnson, an administrative assistant for an architecture and construction firm in the West Loop.

She regularly wipes down her phone and uses hand sanitizer at her desk to ward off illness. She takes a sick day when she feels like she won't be able to do her job.

"I don't want to be the one responsible for spreading the germs and a week after five people are sick," she said.

But Johnson doesn't call in sick too often. She doesn't want it to seem excessive.

What's problematic is that as soon as compassionate bosses tell employees not to come in sick, there's a possibility workers will take advantage of that, just as some abuse the casual Friday dress code, Gimbel said.

He encourages his employees to sleep in and try to come in later if possible.

A good rule of thumb for taking a sick day, according to Gimbel, is, "If you're going to be healthy enough to go out at night and that weekend, then you're healthy enough to come in to work."

Some workers who come in not feeling their best take pride at refusing to skip work, he said. "It's like playing a sport when you're injured. You look tougher and you look like a hero when you do these things," he said.

It's not fun for Ciaramella to go into work sick, but she did when she worked retail while in grad school. She didn't get any paid sick days. But now, she says her boss encourages her to stay home from work and use a paid sick day when necessary.

"If I wake up and I feel absolutely awful and I can't imagine sitting at my desk for eight hours, that's when I would decide to call in sick," she said. "If I would wake up and maybe just have a cough, I think I would try to go into work."

Ciaramella said she's trying to ease up on her "tough it out" mentality.

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