Here’s what you can do when an ill colleague insists on coming to the office
- Some people will come to work sick. Probably not because they want you to share their suffering, legally speaking.
- The right to a safe work environment extends to pathogens – like viruses – so there is a formal way of dealing with an ill colleague.
- That mechanism will also work if you fear infection with the novel coronavirus behind Covid-19.
- But you're probably okay as long as you adopt the fist bump.
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* This article has been updated.
The patently ill colleague who comes to work in order to cough and sneeze over every available surface is probably not guilty of assault – as much as it may feel that way. So it is probably not a good idea to try and effect a citizen's arrest on the basis of imminent danger to all the innocent, healthy people caught in the spray.
But there is the option of a complaint to management – especially if you fear the novel coronavirus behind Covid-19.
"The closest analogy here is smoking, something that has an effect on the health of coworkers," says Alan Rycroft, a long-time arbitrator in the labour sector and professor of commercial law at the University of Cape Town. "An employer has an obligation to keep the workplace heathy and safe, and a grievance can be filed against a manager not keeping it that way."
A manager who, say, fails to do everything possible to send an infectious colleague home, whether with the seasonal flu or something more serious.
In reality, open workplaces, such as shops or professional practices where visitors come and go all the time, have no real way to protect workers against the carriers of seasonal, airborne disease. And coughing and sneezing is not nearly as big a problem as the good old handshake, which is responsible for most transmission.
Some see bedrest as giving in to a niggling disease. Others, often those who feel insecure in their jobs, will insist on going to work to be seen even if they know they will be unproductive, says human-resources specialist Tshepo Lephoi of Ofentse HR Solutions. Fixing the underlying issue, whether a too-macho organisational culture or employees who see their jobs as precarious, would be ideal. But failing that there are ways to force them to get better, faster, and not put others at risk.
"In a fully-established environment you should have a wellness specialist that a manager can refer an employee to, to get them to see a doctor," says Lephoi. "Once a doctor books that person off, you should have a policy that says you are not allowed to come back to work early, not even if you start feeling better.
* This article was first published on 23 May 2019, in reference to the annual flu season. It was updated on 9 March 2020 with reference to the novel coronavirus behind Covid-19. The comments by Rycroft and Lephoi pre-date the emergence of Covid-19. Government-mandated measures intended to curb the spread of that virus could impose far stricter requirements on managers and employers.
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