Here’s How Germs Travel In Your Office When Someone Comes To Work Sick

by JR Thorpe

Plenty of us have had to make the uncomfortable decision of whether or not to go to work sick. Thanks to unforgiving sick leave policies and company cultures that encourage you to "push through" illness, taking a legit sick day feels rarer and rarer. While not everyone has the privilege to choose to work from home — especially for people who work on shifts, in service or retail, or other industries where flex time is harder to come by — learning how germs move through your workspace can make it easier to make the case for staying at home, if you're able. And, if you *do* have to come in for that meeting, there are many steps that you can take to make sure other people in your work environment don't catch your bug.

The unfortunate truth is that in the United States, sick leave isn't a given — and can in fact be very hard to come by. According to Quartz, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows over 30 percent of private sector employees in the United States have no paid sick leave at all, and they mostly occupy the lowest-earning jobs. Freelancers and contractors also have difficulty obtaining paid sick leave. If remote working isn't an option, you may just need to go to work sick. Need to head into the office even when you're sneezing? Here's how to avoid getting your deskmates sick.


Handshakes Can Spread Germs

It may surprise you to know that the most common way in which the common cold spreads isn't through sneezing. "Colds are primarily transmitted from person to person via hands contaminated with nasal secretions. Less often, viruses that cause colds can be transmitted by touching a contaminated surface or via sneezing or coughing," wrote Dr. Daniel Sexton and Dr. Micah McClain for Up To Date.

If you have to go to work sick: Hand sanitizer is your best friend. Avoid touching your coworkers or sharing materials with them if possible, and use anti-bacterial wipes or gel on your hands regularly, even if you haven't had a coughing fit in hours.


As Can Sneezing

This is one of the better-known ways in which your deskmates could get your illness. "When an infected person coughs or sneezes, their cold or influenza virus becomes airborne and survives for approximately one hour in the air. If another person inhales the air carrying the cold or flu droplets, they can catch the virus," says the Virtual Medical Clinic.

This inhalation doesn't 100 percent guarantee that your deskmate will catch the illness, though. Health24 points out that there are three factors that can determine how likely it is that inhalation will mean a person catches an illness: how many droplets they inhale, their level of immunity, and whether the person who sneezed or coughed is actually contagious. People with good immune systems will have a lower chance of catching anything from you.

If you have to go to work sick: Try to catch all your coughs and sniffles in tissues or and dispose of them quickly, away from others. Sneezing into your elbow can also help.


Avoid Sharing Office Supplies

Sharing an area with a sick person doesn't mean you're likely to get ill from touching what they've touched. A lot depends on what you share and what it's made of. "Viruses generally remain active longer on stainless steel, plastic and similar hard surfaces than on fabric and other soft surfaces," says the Mayo Clinic. "Other factors, such as the amount of virus deposited on a surface and the temperature and humidity of the environment, also determine how long cold and flu viruses stay active outside the body." If you live in a city with cold, dry winters and share a pretty warm, humid office, you may be less likely to transfer illness to others, according to studies cited by Harvard Health.

If you have to go to work sick: Err on the side of caution and clean your own area regularly. Don't share plastic or metal utensils or tools if possible. If there are communal objects, like the office stapler, wipe 'em down after you use them. And stay away from the office kitchen, which has a lot of shared objects that could carry or transmit viruses; bring in lunch from home.


Be Mindful Of Your Office Layout

There's a strong upside to cubicles, even if they do make you feel a little like a lab rat: they can protect others from your germs. "One study of more than 1,800 Swedish workers found that people in open plan offices were nearly twice as likely to take short term sick leave (of one week or less) than those who worked in private offices. A survey from Denmark showed employees in open plan offices were 62 percent more likely to take a sick day than those with their own separate office," reported Kaleigh Roberts for Motherboard in 2016.

If you have to go to work sick: Relocate to a cubicle or office if possible, or put yourself in a corner of an open office that's less exposed to others.


Working while sick can be tough, but sometimes, it can't be avoided. If you take the right steps while at work, though, you can protect your deskmates from getting the same thing.