46

This is in the US. Last Wednesday, I woke up feeling under the weather, but it appeared to just be allergies. Regardless, I still took precautions to avoid spreading anything (washing hands, excusing myself to cough, eating separately, warning people to keep a distance, etc). It wasn't until after work I realized I was definitely sick with something that ended up being one of the worst cases of strep I'd ever experienced.

Unfortunately, despite these efforts, a coworker of mine has also gotten sick. While I mostly kept my distance and warned him at the beginning of the day, there was a 10 minute span of time he came over to work at my desk with me seated a bit away. In hindsight, I ought to have reminded him again that I was not doing well and requested, for his sake, I join him at a distance at his desk if necessary. From the wording of his out of office email, it sounds as though it has been a multi-day ordeal, which has me thinking it may have come from me. I understand though, that this is not necessarily true.

While it might be a coincidence, I feel slightly guilty knowing that it could be my fault he is in this situation. In addition, I am worried for his sake, since I know it took me 5 days and antibiotics to even feel well enough to return. I want to communicate these things to him, specifically that I had strep, which needs treatment, rather than the flu, which has similar symptoms. However, I'm unable to figure out a way to do this without sounding overbearing.

I've considered the following response:

Hi _____,

I'm sorry to hear you're not doing well. If it is relevant to your situation, you might remember I was out sick last Thursday and Friday. I was diagnosed Thursday with strep throat. Given the proximity of our desks, I feel it's possible I might have unknowingly passed it on to you, and wanted to give you a heads up. If this is the case, I want to apologize. I hope you feel better soon.

Sincerely, _____

My question is, is this an appropriate way to express my concern that his illness may be serious and apologize if I accidentally spread my illness to him?

EDIT: emphasized that I understand that it may just be a fluke. I certainly don't think it's guaranteed, and would like to proceed accordingly.

  • 80
    Correlation isn't causation. It might have been your fault. It might not have been your fault. There's no way for you to definitively or empirically know. As such, this isn't something I'd address at all. This is the "risk" we all assume when working together, that we'll catch someone else's cold. – joeqwerty Sep 9 at 16:51
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    Not clear from the question on the time frames, but it's possible that a third party got both of you sick. – Aequitas Sep 10 at 3:35
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    Usually people already carry the germs before they get sick. So the disease spreads before you feel ill, so you (or probably someone else) can't really help it, even with best intentions. – Mixxiphoid Sep 10 at 4:44
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    @joeqwerty: But it’s common decency to not infect others. This also means staying at home when you are sick, even if you feel well enough to work. – Michael Sep 10 at 8:41
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    Your colleague could very well be the one who got you sick, for all you know... – jcaron Sep 10 at 14:34
192

My question is, is this an appropriate way to express my concern and apologize if I accidentally spread my illness to him?

I think you may be worrying about this a bit too much, and if you provide inaccurate information you could cause more harm than good.

Unless you are 100% certain you caused this persons illness, there really isn't much to say and an apology isn't in order. This type of thing happens in the workplace (germ sharing if you will).

The other consideration is that you cannot be certain they did not catch the illness from another source. ( children, spouse, food, etc. )

Short answer: Don't worry about this, no apology necessary.

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    ... and you cannot be certain they did not catch the illness from another source this is really important. You can even end up misleading them into the wrong disease. – espindolaa Sep 9 at 16:48
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    @espindolaa This shouldn't mislead the coworker, only inform them. I would hope that the coworker would be smart enough to go to a doctor, not rely on a guess. – David K Sep 9 at 16:49
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    @DavidK again, should. There is no way of knowing how the coworker will react. If the OP says nothing, chances are he will go to the doctor. If he says something, he can still go the doctor, which is the same as the first scenario, or he can ignore it and start medicating himself for the wrong things. – espindolaa Sep 9 at 16:56
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    @espindolaa Seriously have none of you ever had strep throat before? You cannot get the treatment for strep throat without going to a doctor (at least in the US), therefore the coworker cannot start treating himself incorrectly. Telling the coworker will give them more incentive to go to the doctor so they can get the correct treatment earlier. With no information, they may think it's just a cold and sit at home for three days getting worse and giving their entire family strep too. – David K Sep 9 at 16:59
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    The biggest concern to me would be that he 1. Does have strep throat 2. Doesn't go to the doctor (which is necessary for treatment). Since the flu has similar symptoms and can't really be treated, people in the US don't always go in to the doctor. I know he's his own individual, but it feels like it should be possible for me to inform him, just in case. – Roug Sep 9 at 17:43
59

I decided to go ahead and email him to express that I hope he gets well soon and that I was diagnosed with strep. I did not apologize in the email.

My reasons for doing so is as follows:

  • We work together frequently enough that an email with some personal information isn't too unusual

  • Since it's flu season (which strep can be confused for) and we work in the US, I wanted him to have more information to decide whether or not to go to the doctor.

  • If it ends up not being strep, or if the topic doesn't come up again, I won't have apologized and seemed over concerned. If he later mentions it ended up being strep, I can say something small in person.

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    I'm glad you took this course of action, even if others here don't agree. – David K Sep 9 at 18:24
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    Note that it may be possible that you didn't infect him, even if he still has strep. You may both have been infected by the same source. – Cyonis Sep 10 at 6:19
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    I agree this was the right thing to do especially as you work so closely and it sounds like you'd consider him a friend in some regards so it can't be considered inappropriate to pass on concerns. Strep may not be considered as serious but I had meningitis a while back and the CDC actually called my work up to ensure the office was informed that they should go to the doctor if they had any symptoms, however acute. Preventing the spread of decease is important and is the only way they'll be wiped out – Bee Sep 10 at 10:42
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    Honestly don't think there's a right or wrong answer to your question, but it's cool that you decided to reach out. Everyone is focused on whether it's likely you contaminated him or not, but showing that you care is a nice gesture regardless. – aw04 Sep 10 at 12:54
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    If you live in a big, busy city, then your co-worker almost certainly is exposed to hundreds of random people throughout his normal working week. He could have contracted his illness from any one of those people. – user1751825 Sep 11 at 6:30
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Yes, your response is appropriate.

Most of the time, were this a common cold or the flu, I would say a message like this is not necessary and not to worry about it. However, since this is specifically strep throat, which may not go away without the correct treatment, I think it's worth mentioning. The main point of the message is that you have information that may help him recover quicker, not that you feel guilty for getting him sick (though your simple apology is not out of place).

Edit:

Adding information about strep throat, as many of the people here seem to have never had it. Strep throat is a bacterial infection with symptoms very similar to the flu. Antibiotics help decrease the length of the infection and make it no longer contagious. Antibiotics can only be provided with a doctor's prescription, and they will usually require a positive strep test first.

When encountering flu-like symptoms, many people in the US often won't go to the doctor, since there's nothing that can be done for a viral infection aside from rest and wait. That's why it's important to tell the coworker that it might be strep, so that they know that they should go to the doctor to get the test done. The goal is to share information that may help them recover quicker, and prevent them from spreading it to others. There's little risk of the coworker treating for strep incorrectly, because the treatment requires a doctor's examination first to confirm the appropriate course of action.

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    The OP has no way to know if they caused the illness or not. – Mister Positive Sep 9 at 16:49
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    @MisterPositive You're right they don't, which is why the coworker needs to go to a doctor. If you think you have a simple cold and try to wait it out, strep throat will not get better and will spread to many more people. It's much safer to go to a doctor to get a simple test early, and the coworker may not know to do so if the OP doesn't share their information. – David K Sep 9 at 16:50
  • @DavidK Strep throat does eventually get better without antibiotics, but it takes several weeks. – Matt Samuel Sep 10 at 17:48
  • @MattSamuel Yes, you are correct. My answer fixed that error, but unfortunately it's too late to edit my comments. – David K Sep 10 at 18:41
13

I worked in a factory where we were almost on top of each other. They say that people get can get sick from the same person at different times. E.g. Amy could come in with it on Monday, give it to you and Joe and Joe could actually get sick before Amy, and then you after Joe so Joe might think he gave it to you when he actually caught it from the person who was sick. Just let him know what you have and that it's been going around and that he should get checked.

People get sick at work and you shouldn't worry about it.

4

Even if they have strep, it is quite plausible they caught it from someone else: if you have an infectious disease, that means it is spreading in your community. Everyone in your community is likely to get exposed to someone with it in a window of time surrounding when you get sick.

So rather than apologize, I'd focus on the warning. If your workspace is small or the people you worked with tiny, you could send an email about how what looked like allergies or a cold turned out to be strep and laid you flat for a week -- and if other people come down with flu like symptoms, they might want to talk to a doctor about antibiotics.

Such an email wouldn't be aimed specifically at that person, or even refer to their illness. Just everyone who works adjacent to you. And it wouldn't be apologetic, just informative.

2

This depends a lot on what is customary in your locale. With the caveat that I am Canadian and this is what is customary in my locale, here is my response:

I think you're overthinking this. People give diseases to others at work all the time. It happens. You did your best to let everyone know not to come close to you and so on. The rest is not your fault. I wouldn't even send a message, except maybe to say "Hey Joe, I heard you're feeling under the weather, I hope you feel better soon".

In many countries, we have things called "sick days", which are days not counted as our vacation allowance that we can use to stay home in case we are sick. Some locales (presumably yours included) do not have such a system. This situation is one of the benefits of such a system; if you are sick and come to work anyway then you pass on your sickness and everyone else gets sick. Conversely if you stay home when you are sick then you feel better faster and also nobody in the office gets sick. If you have authority in the office you may want to consider suggesting or implementing such a system, because you have seen first hand the benefits.

As far as letting your coworker know he has strep, that's not your business. You're not a doctor so step off. He will go see a doctor and his doctor will tell him what he has and prescribe the appropriate medication. It's neither your business nor your responsibility, and this part imo is regardless of locale.

  • 4
    Sorry, I'm not quite sure where you got the impression that I was telling my coworker he had strep--I am not even certain he has the same thing as me. I only mentioned informing him that that's what I was diagnosed with so he could make his own decisions. Since strep and the flu have very similar symptoms, people in the US often won't go to the doctor, since there's not much they can do for a viral infection. – Roug Sep 9 at 17:42
  • It's heavily insinuated, if you say "I had strep" and "you may have gotten sick due to interacting with me" that "you have strep". I would hope your employer enrolls your coworker in a health insurance plan, or at least that you are covered under Obamacare, and going to the doctor to get checked out should not be a huge financial burden. – Ertai87 Sep 10 at 18:36

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