Blog Post: Avoid giving what you may catch: Keeping a healthy workplace a priority during the flu season

Written by Guest Blogger Shannon DeMaria Ph.D., Research Ethics Training Coordinator, Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE)

Lab and clinic life is can be demanding and relentlessly busy, resulting in schedules with little flexibility or time for impromptu absence. Unfortunately, the flu and similar bugs don’t care, and will circulate regardless.Meanwhile, experimental and clinical biology is difficult to pause. Your cells won’t split themselves, rounds need to be done, and maybe you can still make it in, plus or minus some medication to mask the symptoms.

But, should you? Losing a day could mean losing many days of progress, so the trade-off of that day off doesn’t look very valuable, does it?

 

You may also feel an unspoken and unhealthy pressure to demonstrate your dedication to your work by not taking time off due to personal discomfort. [(This can be seen as part of a broader culture, common in the sciences, of glorifying overwork simply for its own sake.)]

 There’s a word to describe this action: presenteeism. This is the act of being at work when you really shouldn’t be. When you’re immersed in your work, it can be hard to think about much else, but there are times you should look up from that notebook, computer, or clipboard. First – look after yourself! A restful break might be exactly what you need to recover more quickly. Second – look beyond yourself! Particularly in seasons when infectious diseases are spreading, you ought to consider that not staying home has broader impacts than your own immediate schedule.  The consequences of presenteeism include:

 

  • Potentially increased time being ill (and you want to minimize this, right?)
  • Loss of efficacy (you’re more likely to make mistakes.)
  • Loss of Productivity (you won’t be as capable as you think you might.)
  • Workplace epidemics (your co-workers will thank you for not being there.)
  • Future poor health and exhaustion (a repeating cycle that takes a toll.)

 

While you can’t hit ‘pause’ on your experiments, consider working out reciprocal or lab/group-wide arrangements where critical tasks could be temporarily reassigned. And when you do have to come in, precautions such as face masks and minimizing physical contact can be effective in preventing transmission. If you have to cancel something, remember that this happens to us all. Workplace outbreaks will spill into non-work environments, affecting families, children, and more. Ignoring your health and that of those around you can have long lasting and far-rippling costs you hadn’t thought of in that ‘stay home or not?’ calculus.

 Like vaccines, preventing workplace outbreaks has a cumulative or “herd” effect – the more people who are mindful of their practices while ill, the more effective the strategy of illness reduction becomes for all.

 Finally, keep in mind that we may work in an environment with people who are immunocompromised or otherwise highly susceptible to infectious disease. Staying home when you could spread something might seem like an inconvenience, but in reality can be crucial for promoting the NIH mission of public health. So, for your own sake, your co-workers’ sake, and the sake of our patients, please be mindful of the impacts of coming to work while infectious or feeling terrible. The cost of not taking time off may be far greater than you realize!

 

 

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