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state of conflusion

Canadian workplaces have been doused in hand sanitizer, littered with urgent hand-washing notices and peppered with colleagues talking swine flu around the water cooler. But if there's one resounding message to sniffling employees, it's this: Don't be a hero.

Coming into the office with the chills or even a persistent sneeze has become an offensive workplace faux pas as lines for the H1N1 vaccine snake through public buildings and hysteria about the virus hits fever pitch.

"I think it's being viewed as passing irresponsible," says Rod Phillips, president of Shepell.fgi, consultants on health and productivity in the workplace.

"People are very conscious of what their co-workers think and … no one wants to be sick with H1N1. It used to be people cough and say 'excuse me.' Now they cough and say 'I don't have H1N1.'"

Most employers are becoming more flexible on sick policies, asking fewer questions when an employee calls in sick, and are sending ill workers home, says Claude Balthazard, director of HR excellence at the Human Resource Professionals Association.

Bosses are also asking sick employees for a quick phone or e-mail check-in before they return, he says.

Despite this, some worker bees may continue to schlep into work even with a feverish temperature.

"In some organizations it's interpreted as loyalty if you show up even when you're sick," he says. "But you'll notice that this time around, the climate is that that's not particularly well seen."

Andrea S., who declined to give her last name, says she scoffed at a few employees in her office when they recently arrived there sick.

"I'm like, 'You can work from home, why are you here?'" says the 38-year-old information-technology systems analyst in Toronto. "They thought that it wasn't that bad. But again, it's not realizing that some people have lower immune systems and they're susceptible to any little thing."

When they're feeling under the weather, people who can work from home, should, she adds.

But there are still a few very stubborn employees out there, some HR departments find.

"I think those who would tough it out normally are still toughing it out," says Sue Zuccala, the Ottawa-based vice president of human resources at Fleishman-Hillard, a Canadian public-relations company. People with bad colds have stayed home as a precautionary measure, but there hasn't been a spike in absenteeism, she says. "And we haven't had anyone really abusing it," she says, noting that most people have been able to work from home.

The company also massaged its sick-leave policy to allow interns to take a paid day if they're very ill.

But some employees don't have the luxury of benevolent bosses and flexible sick policies. Going into work sick is a tough call for employees on temporary contracts or working jobs where they aren't paid if they don't show up, says Sonia Singh, an organizer at the Workers' Action Centre, a community-based worker's advocacy association in Toronto.

"People, unless they're feeling really, really sick, are going to go into work because [they don't want to]lose a day's pay and because if you're working in a temp job, you may not have a job to go back to."

Chris Bond, who works on contract as an art director and stood in line for his shot at Toronto's Metro Hall yesterday, says he's not taking any chances.

"Even if I was not working on contract and working full-time, I would try to take the time [off if I were sick]" he says, adding this will be his first winter on a contract and that he doesn't fear for his job should he fall ill.

Still, it seems there's an upside for temps in a flu-spooked work environment, at least for Sharlene Massie, chief executive officer of Calgary's About Staffing temp agency. In the past month "temp hours" have doubled to about 500 a week, meaning more work and more pay for short-term employees.

"Even healthy people are staying home because they're scared of getting sick. This is creating job opportunities for people," she says.

Still, it's not easy to halt the eye roll when yet another employee calls in sick, some managers say.

"As someone who almost never takes sick days, I do tend to resent people who seem to call in sick all the time, but not specifically with regards to H1N1," said Shannon Couch, vice-president of product planning and development at the Beacon Group, a Toronto-based human-resource consultancy.

Her husband, Kyle, says he took his first sick day in a long time just over a month ago, thinking he might have swine flu himself.

"The actual sickness is probably the third thing you consider, after realizing the workload, perception to your employer - all sorts of things are far more top of mind than saying, 'I'm going to make my co-workers sick,'" he says.