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If you're sick, just stay home with your germs

(ran SP, NP, PT, TP, HT editions)

A few weeks ago, Joy Hopkins developed a wicked sinus infection and stayed home from work. But instead of convalescing with, say, West Wing reruns on Bravo, she tried to be productive, cleaning her bathroom and doing the dishes.

The 25-year-old international-trade specialist says she feels guilty when she takes a sick day. "I always get images of people working away," she says, adding that she also worries her colleagues will think she's lying about how sick she is.

It can be hard to tell which ailment is worse: the virulent strain of influenza that is laying people low or America's shortsighted work ethic, which does a number on people's heads. We often mistake absenteeism for sloth and presenteeism for productivity, forgetting that we all know officemates who don't do much work even when they show up. As a result, countless employees soldier on at work with their sniffles and tickly throats, hallucinating that they are indispensable or that their bosses will shower them with appreciation.

But consider this hazard of the open-office plan: Your every exhale strafes colleagues with pathogens. One innocent keystroke on the departmental fax machine, or any other public display of infection, and the whole department could be laid to waste.

Worse yet, sick attendees and the managers who encourage tough-it-out work habits are standing in the way of science and evolution, which could save corporations money and maybe even save lives. Or so says Paul Ewald, a biology professor at the University of Louisville and the author of several books on evolutionary biology.

Typically, disease organisms compete against each other. The aim of their game is to use a person to replicate themselves but not to lay that person so low that he or she can't parade around the office and infect us. Some pathogens may produce trillions of offspring, but if the viral baby boom makes a person too sick to stand up and, say, cough on other people, the virus' spread could be stopped dead in its tracks.

And that's Ewald's point. By staying home, you aren't simply catching up on daytime soaps. You are mounting a Darwinian counterattack against wicked strains of the flu and other maladies by stranding them on the Kleenex in your bedroom wastebasket. Meanwhile, as milder strains make the office rounds, they trigger immune-system responses that will defend against stronger strains. It is "like getting a free live vaccine," Ewald says.

The effect isn't unlike the domestication of wolves into puppy dogs. "We should be getting viruses that are so mild you wouldn't know you're infected," he says. In the short term, more people may be out sick and the cost to companies may be higher. But "in the long term, we would have less illness." In turn, he says, businesses could be far more productive, and people could defend against life-threatening diseases.

"The very best policy," he concludes, "is to have anybody who's feeling the least bit sick stay home."

Try telling that to the many businesses that punish employees who use up their sick days. Jackie Hansen's husband boiled over with a fever before Christmas. But because he would have lost a day's pay if he stayed home, he worked anyway. His job: catering meetings of World Bank officials. "He quite likely infected others," she says.

Technology creates an expectation that you'll work effectively from your deathbed, but even that is often counterproductive. Hansen, who works for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, stayed out of the office after she contracted an illness while traveling into remote corners of Nicaragua by donkey. She tried to keep working, e-mailing a trip-related expense report to headquarters. The reply: "This doesn't make sense."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocates staying at home when sick and warns the rest of us to avoid contact with sick people and even ourselves ("Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.") One of the best defenses, it says, is washing your hands.

But in an office, where bathroom doorknobs are suspect, that isn't so easy. Ewald offers a solution.

To avoid bathroom-surface contact, Ewald cranks the paper in the towel dispenser and then turns on the water faucet and washes his hands. When he is done, he rips the paper toweling from the dispenser to dry his hands and turn off the faucet. But he keeps possession of the towel, using it to grab the bathroom doorknob.

The challenge, he says, is to toss the paper towel away in the garbage can without ever touching the door. "If you hold the door open with your foot," he counsels, "you can make an accurate toss."