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Published: Jan 17, 2018 5 min read
Solomiya Malovana—Shutterstock

The 2018 flu season is shaping up to be a doozy, with experts predicting one of the worst outbreaks the U.S. has ever seen. In high flu seasons, deaths have recently spiked to 56,000, according to the Center for Disease Control.

If you work in an office, evidence of the flu is probably everywhere: the chorus of hacking employees, the heaps of crumpled Kleenex, the graveyard of empty desk chairs.

You want to avoid meeting a similar fate, but there's a dripping, wheezing person in the cubicle next to you, and they refuse to take a day off. So what chance do your really stand against this season's flu?

Here’s an idea: Why not stay home yourself?

“It’s got to be a stealthy, undercover plan, as not to offend, or step on any toes,” says Patricia Rossi, a Florida-based business etiquette coach. “But if you know you’re going to be more productive if you’re not dodging the serial sneezer, take that day.”

It's a logical approach — you'd be preventing the spread of flu after all, and the productivity-zapping nightmare that comes with it. So if stepping away from the office for just one day can prevent you from catching something that will knock you out for a week, why wouldn't you stay home?

"Were all different people," Rossi says. “Sometimes, we need to take control of what’s best for our lives."

There are a few ways to approach this. If you have a personal day at your disposal, go ahead and use it. You shouldn't have to do too much explaining: Most employers consider what workers use those days for private. If your boss is the kind of person who responds well to “mental health day” requests, that’s another option.

If you don’t have any personal days, or if bolting to get away from the flu would screw over your colleagues, you should ask to work from home, Rossi says.

You'll need to tread lightly, though. Instead of complaining about Snotty McPhlegmerson, say something like: “I really want to nail this presentation I’m working on, and think I’d be more productive if I work from my home today.” For many bosses, a simple, “cool if I work from home today?” will do just fine.

Another route to adding some space between you and an ailing colleague is to convince them to take their own sick butts home. But that’ll take some finesse. Rossi says you can’t just flat out ask them to leave.

But more often than not, people come into the office when they're sick because they think they have to. They’re afraid of missing deadlines, or how hard it will be to catch up later. So if you offer to cover their workload while they’re away, or help them get caught up when they feel better, you might be able to convince them otherwise.

“Always take the kind and concerned approach," she says.

Avoiding the flu

If, in the end, you find yourself hunkering down at the office like everybody else and hope for the best to avoid the flu, there are a few things you can do to boost your chances of making it to spring unscathed. (Flu season typically peaks between December and February, but can hang around until May.)

The public health organization NSF International (formerly known as the National Sanitation Foundation) recommends paying extra close attention to your diet this time of year as a form of natural flu prevention: Make sure you're eating healthy, balanced meals and taking any vitamins your doctor has recommended. According to WebMD, you should avoid carbohydrates and saturated fats, and hone in on warm liquids like soup, which can help with inflammation.

At work, try to avoid common areas like break rooms and cafeterias, and disinfect the communal spaces and personal items you touch frequently, like keyboards, desks, and phones, says NSF Senior Microbiologist Lisa Yakas. She has a point: the CDC says the virus can "live" on surfaces for up to 24 hours.

“Basically, it boils down to common sense,” she says.

Clearly, you've got more of that than the next cubicle to you.