The safest thing to do, then, is to take a PCR test to confirm whether your cold-like symptoms are Covid. However, even if the test comes back negative, many experts believe there is merit in taking time to rest and recuperate from common colds at home. Immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi previously told The Telegraph that, in the post-Covid world, she hopes bosses will tell sick employees to stay at home to prevent infecting others. “For a long time, I’ve been an advocate against presenteeism, whereby people would still turn up to work with a cold. We have a lot of data showing when people are under the weather, they are not as productive at work. They are also spreading their germs to colleagues and commuters and making other people sick,” she said.
Indeed, cold and flu germs spread rapidly in the workplace. Research from the University of Arizona found that when someone comes into the office feeling unwell, more than half of commonly touched surfaces – such as doorknobs, photocopier machine buttons and the fridge – can become infected with a virus after four hours. A separate study by the University of Pittsburgh identified that spending a day at the office while sick could cause an increase in workplace flu cases by as much as 40 per cent.
While it’s important to take time off work when you’re visibly sick, Ronald Eccles, emeritus professor at Cardiff University and former director of the Common Cold Centre, explains that, in practice, isolating for the full duration of symptoms is unrealistic. “The common cold is caused by over 200 different viruses; adults have 2-3 symptomatic colds a year and children an average of 5-8. Adopting a policy of isolating for a few days when symptomatic with a cold would mean the closure of all nurseries, schools and colleges over the winter and complete disruption of all transport and business,” he says.
Instead, Prof Eccles recommends that people with colds should wear a mask on public transport and in crowded public places. “We are most contagious with a cold when sneezing and coughing and it is reasonable to try and catch coughs and sneezes in a handkerchief in order to reduce spread of disease. Isolation is not a reasonable policy to adopt,” he adds.
In 2013, a US study examined how masks could slow down the spread of flu when infected people exhale droplets of the virus. The researchers found that masks led to a more than threefold reduction in how much virus was sprayed into the air. Another study, which analysed data from thousands of Japanese schoolchildren, found that “vaccination and wearing a mask reduced the likelihood of developing seasonal influenza”.
However, since the pandemic there has also been a psychological shift in how both employers and employees view illness in the workplace. Sadie Restorick, workplace wellbeing specialist and co-founder of Wellity Global, says that over the past two years many of us have started to feel “a sense of discomfort” around co-workers who are unwell.
“Many people feel a heightened level of social responsibility due to the pandemic and a desire to not place others at risk. More people will be likely to remain at home when they feel unwell and less inclined to feel that they must push through as they may have historically done,” she says.
She adds that the shift to working from home means that people may still feel obliged to log on and work, even when they are feeling under the weather. “Workers should be honest about their state of physical and mental health and take the time off if they do feel unwell. It is important that they take this time to rest and recover and not simply work from another location,” she says.
Ultimately, whether you choose to work through a cold remains your decision – this is one virus that the Government is unlikely to clamp down on with restrictions anytime soon. As for how your colleagues feel about you sipping a Lemsip while at your desk, that might just depend on whether or not they’re after your job…