Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thank You, H1N1 Swine Flu...

Illustration of antigenic shiftImage via Wikipedia

Thank you, H1N1 swine flu for reminding everyone that when they are sick they need to stay home.

My chronic illnesses currently prevent me from working, so my risk of getting any cold or flu is now reduced. But I cannot tell you how frustrating it was for me while I was working when co-workers came to work sick. Despite all my best efforts, like hand sanitizer, air sanitizer, washing my hands, vitamin C, etc., I inevitably got sick. Each time I got sick, I spent two weeks out of work because my cold or flu resulted in more severe symptoms and turned into sinus and other infections. Needless to say, my employers were not happy, but I learned to come back to work armed with a fistful of doctor's notes and quoting the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA.)

Why do I get so sick from a cold or flu?

I am a leukemia survivor; leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells--you know, the cells in our bodies that fight infection. Sure, my leukemia went into remission 21 years ago, but it left my immune system a bit impaired. On top of that, my type 2 diabetes makes fighting an infection more difficult. I am also a person living with chronic Hepatitis C infection, which doesn't help my overall health situation either.

Here is the thing: I get it that people need to work to earn a living. I also learned from Duncan Cross' blog that not every American is guaranteed paid sick leave, which is just outrageous. I guess I need to thank H1N1 swine flu a second time for bringing this issue back to the forefront via the Healthy Families Act. However, all the jobs I previously held provided workers with paid sick leave or paid time off (PTO) and STILL co-workers insisted on coming in to work sick. (I think the PTO system really encouraged this, by the way, because the less of your PTO you use for sick time, the more vacation you can request.)

I think our society needs a wake up call when it comes to basic health practices that prevent the spread of illnesses. Remember what we learned in hygiene? Wash your hands, use a tissue when you sneeze or blow your nose, cover your cough and stay home when you are sick. Are we so obsessed with our jobs that we can't take a few days to rest and take care of ourselves when we are sick? In my past jobs, my employers didn't require a doctor's note for an illness absence unless you were out of work from more than three days, which is more that enough time for the average healthy person to get on the road to recovery from the common cold or seasonal flu.

So listen up. If you chose to go to work sick, you need to know the consequences. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a person with the flu can pass the virus to others for up to seven days after symptoms appear and are likely to infected 1.8 of every 10 co-workers. Sick food services workers, especially those with the stomach flu, have the potential to cause a viral outbreak that can sicken hundreds. Forty percent of workers cite contact with a sick co-worker as the cause for contracting an communicable illness.

As for employers, I know you need your workers to make your widgets, but your workers are human and they will get sick. In my opinion, it is poor planning on your part if you don't account for that in your business plan. It is also irresponsible on your part to create a situation where sick workers feel compelled to come to work and expose all your other workers to communicable illnesses. I'm no public health expert, but it seems to me that written and unwritten policies like that contribute to the spread of world-wide pandemic illnesses like the H1N1 swine flu.

Seriously, if we all don't recommit ourselves to good hygiene practices and staying home when we are sick, it's not just me that is going to suffer. All it's going to take is one especially virulent pandemic flu and the population of working adults might just get wiped out by their co-workers who come to work sick and their employers who encourage this behavior.

Who knew a virus could have the potential to exploit the weaknesses in our society and bring down human civilization as we know it?

O.K., I've opened Pandora's box with this post, so the least you could do is leave me a comment. Thanks!

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