Sense & Sensitivity by Harriette Cole

Co-worker Gets Everyone in Open Office Sick

DEAR HARRIETTE: I work in an office with an open format. Mostly we work in cubicles. Recently, this has presented a problem. One of my co-workers was really sick, but he came to work anyway. I get that; we have a lot of work to do, and he didn’t want to be a slacker. The problem is that he was coughing and sneezing and blowing his nose all day for about a week. What happened next? You guessed it! Several of us got sick. So now there’s even more coughing and sneezing in the office. I’m mad. I want to work in a healthy environment. Is there anything that we can do to encourage employees to stay home if they are ill? -- Contaminated Workspace, Atlanta

DEAR CONTAMINATED WORKSPACE: Bring your co-worker’s illness and subsequent spreading of germs to your boss’s attention. Point out that you know everyone wants to do a great job, which includes coming to work no matter what. In this instance, it has backfired on the office because multiple employees are under the weather. Ask your boss to make and enforce a policy about what employees should do when they are sick. If you can show that productivity has gone down because so many people are ill, you may get your boss to notice and take action.

To be proactive, you may want to keep a face mask at your desk. If others start coughing or demonstrating what could be contagious symptoms, put the mask on to protect yourself.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My co-worker is an avid smoker. Every time he gets a break, he goes outside and smokes a cigarette. He does stand in the area reserved for smokers, but the moment he walks back into the building, he brings that awful stench of smoke with him. It’s terrible. He sits right next to me, so I feel like I’m getting second-hand smoke, even though there’s never a lit cigarette in my presence. What can I do to have cleaner air in my area? -- Polluted, Cincinnati

DEAR POLLUTED: I feel for you. Part of me feels for him, too: Smokers have been virtually excommunicated from our culture. Given that smoking cigarettes is an addictive behavior, I know that some people simply can’t figure out how to quit. Your co-worker probably thinks he’s doing the best he can without realizing the impact on you and the others in the office.

What can you do? Invest in a small air purifier that you plug in close to your desk. This will help clean the air of all impurities, including the residual smell of smoke. Keep it on all day to have constant air cleaning happening. You can also spray a room sanitizer that’s designed to clean the air. Look for something that’s more than perfume. That will only change the smell of the air.

You can also ask your supervisor to move your desk. Explain that the smell of smoke is making you sick.

(Harriette Cole is a lifestylist and founder of DREAMLEAPERS, an initiative to help people access and activate their dreams. You can send questions to or c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)