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Stay home at first flu symptoms, says public health professor

It may seem like common sense, but the professor's advice runs counter to how sick leave is handled by many employers.

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Staying home reduces the risk of spreading the flu to others, says one professor. Image: AOP

Professor Jouni Jaakkola says people should stay away from work at the first signs of the flu for the benefit of both their co-workers and employees.

Jaakkola, a professor of public health at the University of Oulu's Centre for Environmental and Respiratory Health Research, says the advice he has given to his own co-workers differs from the guidelines provided by the Finnish Medical Society, Duodecim.

Jaakola advises workers to make efforts to stay at home at the first signs of the flu, such as a runny nose, headache or sore throat.

He says he bases his advice on three points. First, recovering from a respiratory infection is faster if the patient rests in the beginning of the illness, while dosing up on zinc and vitamin C. Second, staying home reduces the risk of spreading the flu to other people such as co-workers, as the flu is usually most contagious at its onset.

Third, he says staying home will decrease the load on the healthcare system, saying that when people can evaluate their own condition and need for rest, there’s no need for a doctor's visit

Economically challenging proposition

However, Timo Leino, a senior physician at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, says that Jaakkola’s instructions are financially problematic. He says that respiratory infections are so common that the number of work absences would increase if everyone stayed home immediately when they started to exhibit symptoms -- and this could be very expensive for employers.

He also says that when the flu is starting, a person may not realize that they are sick. Then they are already contagious, and when the symptoms arrive it's too late to stay away from work to prevent contagion, Leino says.

He says that there are great differences between Finnish workplaces regarding sick leave practices, and there are no official national guidelines on the matter.

For example, some workplaces require a sick note after the first day of absence. Others allow employees to be away for up to a week on an honour system, Leino says.

In the past, the option for employees to take sick leave by self-reporting has actually reduced sick leave times Leino says, noting that a physician may be likely to give an employee more sick leave than he or she would take on their own.

Viruses everywhere

According to Duodecim's guidelines, there are so many people exposed to viruses that one person staying home doesn’t make much of a difference. Leino also says that staying away from work doesn’t largely influence the risk of others getting sick.

Professor Jaakkola sees things differently as people spend so much time of their day at work.

"It seems plausible that quantity matters. Eight hours [of exposure] in the same room with a patient with a respiratory infection is different than taking a short bus ride or public visit," he says.

Jaakkola has researched the health of office workers and says that the incidence of respiratory infections in shared office spaces increases by about 30 percent.

"Especially in open-plan offices, patients with acute respiratory tract infections should stay away," recommends Jaakkola.

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