Cold and flu season is here, and people are showing up to work sick again: 'Sneezes will go around in a domino effect'

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A relic of pre-pandemic days is making its return to the workplace: the office cold.

You might remember getting caught in its crosshairs — first, one person shows up with a cough and the sniffles, swearing it all sounds worse than it feels. Within weeks, like clockwork, the bug jumps from desk to desk until half of the team is down for the count.

With people returning to workplaces amid relaxing Covid protocols, poor Covid-19 booster uptake and cold and flu season on the way, the office bug is making an unwelcome comeback.

It wasn't that long ago that ReDell Atkinson remembers her coworkers taking extra precautions around the office with masking, social distancing, hand-washing and staying home when sick.

But in recent weeks, "it's apparent in the cubicles: The sneezes will go around in a domino effect, and you can tell people aren't as quick to stay home as they were before," Atkinson, 27, tells CNBC Make It. "The precautions we were taking before aren't there anymore."

Cold, flu, Covid cases could be serious this winter

There are already hints that this year's cold and flu season could be bad: On Oct. 14, the CDC reported early increases in seasonal flu activity. Hospitals across the country have reported a surge in cases of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, a common virus that causes lung infections.

The uptick in RSV cases is a good proxy that "a lot of respiratory viruses are circulating now," says Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. "No one can predict what'll happen, but it's reasonable to be very concerned" that respiratory tract infections will rise into the late fall and winter, he says.

Meanwhile, he's concerned that public health practices emphasized during the pandemic are falling away, Americans have less access to free Covid tests, and businesses aren't doing more to protect workers through improved sick leave policies and air ventilation systems.

Most Americans don’t plan to get a flu shot this season, two new omicron subvariants are spreading fast, and "the vast majority is behaving as if there's no pandemic," Swartzberg says. "The same things we can do to prevent Covid are the same things that'll prevent other respiratory tract infections."

Possible symptoms for the common cold, flu and Covid
Common cold
  Sore throat  Runny nose
  Coughing  Sneezing
  Headaches  Body aches
  Fever or chills/feeling feverish
  Cough  Sore throat
  Runny/stuffy nose  Muscle/body aches
  Headaches  Fatigue
Some people may experience vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more common in children than adults.
  Fever or chills  Cough
  Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath  New loss of taste or smell
  Fatigue  Muscle/body aches
  Headache  Sore throat
  Congestion/runny nose  Nausea/vomiting

Companies ratchet up return to office and productivity warnings

Fall bugs are coinciding with workers facing increasing pressure to be back in the office, says Caroline Walsh, vice president in the Gartner HR practice.

As of September, 36% of organizations required workers to be in the office at least three days a week, up from 25% in August, according to a Gartner survey of 240 HR leaders — "even though our data shows working remotely, for those who can, does not negatively impact performance and culture," Walsh says. Still, "there's more pressure to get people in, and it's hitting at the same time as cold and flu and RSV season."

The same things we can do to prevent Covid are the same things that'll prevent other respiratory tract infections.
Dr. John Swartberg
clinical professor emeritus at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health

Recession fears could also be making workers feel the need to show up sick. High inflation and a volatile stock market are putting stress on organizations and productivity, particularly as many try to close out the year in a shaky economy, and "there's a temptation to push people to go all-in and work until they can't anymore," Walsh says.

She also worries pandemic lessons on well-being are fading into the background: "In some ways, it's ridiculous we have to have this conversation," she says. "You shouldn't come to work sick. And the last two years should have taught us that. Some return to normal is exciting, but returning to normal pressures to go into the office when sick is something I had hoped we left behind."

Working while sick does everyone a disservice

Showing up to work sick, or even powering through from home, can be damaging on a number of levels.

For one, working instead of letting the body rest will only prolong your illness and recovery, says Dr. Geeta Nayyar, chief medical officer at Salesforce.

"When you rest, your immune system is in a better position to fight off any infection, get better and recover faster," she says.

Some return to normal is exciting, but returning to normal pressures to go into the office when sick is something I had hoped we left behind.
Caroline Walsh
VP in the Gartner HR Practice

Showing up to the workplace while sick can also put immunocompromised colleagues or their family members at risk of illness.

Productivity-wise, you're unlikely to be performing at your best, and on morale, colleagues showing up sick "brings the whole team down," Nayyar adds. "It shows there's no opportunity to get rest when you need it."

Bosses have to encourage sick days and really mean it

The most impactful thing employers can do to keep their workforces healthy is to provide paid sick leave so people can stay home when they need to. But roughly 1 in 5 workers doesn't have access to paid sick days, and it's an even bigger problem for low-wage workers.

And while providing sick leave is one thing, it's also important for bosses to take sick time for themselves and proactively encourage their team to do the same.

Walsh says that if you're a manager, tactfully nudging your employee to go home doesn't have to be awkward. Stick with simple questions: How are you doing? How are you feeling? I noticed you were sniffling a little bit in our last meeting — how's it going?

If someone seems reticent to take a break, "it's helpful to uncover the barriers to that person taking time off," Walsh says. As a manager, see if there's something you can do to reduce their workload or redistribute work among team members.

For junior employees, be explicit about when workers can and should take their sick or PTO days, especially if you have unlimited policies. "Newer associates who've entered the workforce during the pandemic really have no idea the norms of when it's OK to take time off," Walsh says.

Underlying all of this is the need for psychological safety, she adds: "At the end of the day, workers have to know they're not going to be penalized for taking time off."

Atkinson says she's thankful to work for a company with unlimited sick days and the ability to work from home when needed. It's the least she can do to keep herself, her family members and her teammates healthy. "With everything going on, it's irresponsible to not look out for other people."

She remembers her boss once saying: Take one day to yourself. We get you for the rest of the year. It helped her realize that if she shows up sick and does a bad job, it only exacerbates the situation and her illness, rather than if she stayed home to recuperate and came back feeling 100%.

"At end of the day," even if she takes a break, "the work is going to get done."

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