It's February and it's flu season. I'm reminded of that fact as I hear my husband's hacking cough emanating from our living room. The bug hit him hard—he missed a week of work. Yes, we've both had our flu shots. Naturally, I had to ask the perennial silly question, “Where do you think you got it?,” as if assigning a specific source somehow confers a measure of control or immunity. In reality, it's anybody's guess. He could have picked it up from a door handle, an escalator rail, a telephone, a handshake—or from the friend who felt compelled to participate in a volunteer activity with him while obviously ill with an upper respiratory tract infection. This friend related that he felt duty-bound to be present. Hmmm.
The scenario of the ill coworker is all too common in healthcare. The reasons aren't rocket science: As nurses, we're exposed to a variety of bugs. Our employers typically have strict attendance policies that carry employment consequences for too many absences. For some, calling out sick may translate to no pay. Let's not forget peer and frontline manager pressure—it's challenging to find staffing coverage in a pinch, and no one appreciates the increased workload to accommodate a missing staff member. Multiple staff call-outs can seriously impair unit operations and threaten patient-care delivery.
It's a tough situation. Staff who work with a communicable illness pose a safety risk. Transmission of flu or even common cold viruses can herald serious illness and possibly death for vulnerable patients.
And patients aren't the only ones who are impacted—other workers in the environment are subjected to contagion and can spread these germs to their families. The ripple effect is incredibly difficult to quantify, but it can have far-reaching effects on community health.
What's the solution? Wash your hands—a lot. Follow recommended best-practice guidelines for hand hygiene. Get a flu shot. Don't inflict your germs on others. Stay home when you're sick. Don't call out when you're not sick so that you have enough time when you truly need it. Reserve sick occurrences for legitimate reasons (like when you need to be isolated from the human race). Take good care of yourself so you can take good care of others. Stay well!
Until next time—
Linda Laskowski-Jones, MS, RN, ACNS-BC, CEN, FAWM
Editor-in-Chief, Nursing2014 Vice President: Emergency & Trauma Services Christiana Care Health System, Wilmington, Del.