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I have a co-worker (from another team and group but at least in the same department) who coughs. What's the problem with that? Well, he coughs every 2 minutes a freakin' single time! It's not the "cough, cough, cough ..." thing but a single "cough". However, that alone wouldn't be a big deal of course, but he is doing that for four weeks straight and it's driving me insane. Instead of concentrating on work, your mind just listens for the next single-time cough.

The problem is, I really don't want to go to him and say "Can you please stop cough?!" I mean, it's not something under his control, isn't it? How can I handle this?

  • I try to listen to music as often as possible but I can't do this all the time (music annoys/distracts me sometimes while working)
  • I really like him as a person and we have a good relationship
  • We are in a open-plan office
  • I've talked to a team mate and he's also annoyed but not as much as I am (he says he's able to ignore it)
  • Have you considered that this may be a tic related to a condition such as Tourette's Syndrome and this individual isn't able to control it? Or a side-effect of a medication used to control another, more serious condition? – alroc Aug 5 '16 at 12:53
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    More likely simply a medical condition. And if so, I'm sorry but you are going to have to find a way to cope. Noise-blocking headphones may help even when you aren't playing music through them. – keshlam Aug 5 '16 at 13:07
  • @alroc I've even written that this is not under his control. That's basically the core problem. O.o Or what do you mean? – WorksOdd Aug 5 '16 at 13:12
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You need to learn to ignore noises. This is not going to go away, it is likely a medical condition that neither you, nor your manager, nor he can fix. And if he left, then some other noise is going to happen. Open offices are NEVER quiet. Even private offices are rarely totally quiet. Noise is part of the office environment.

Clearly your anger at this distraction is more distracting than the actual noise, so fix that. It is the only part you have control over anyway.

You can ignore ANY noise if you decide you want to. That this distracts you has nothing at all to do with the noise, but with your own interpretation of the noise.

The meditation techniques for ignoring noise/distractions are useful. It would be worth your while to learn to meditate. They teach you how to take teh emotional self-talk out of your interactions with noise.

Consider these two scenarios, which do you think is less distracting?

Scenario one

Co_worker "cough"
You "arrrgh, stupid cough"
Co_worker "cough"
You "I hate that stupid cough"
Co_worker "cough"
You "He's doing it again. Why does that freak have to keep coughing."
Co_worker "cough"
You "I want to take a knife and slit his throat. Make it stop . ARRRRGGGGHGHGH."

Scenario 2

Co_worker "cough"
You "noise"
Co_worker "cough"
You "noise"
Co_worker "cough"
You "noise"
Co_worker "cough"
You "noise"

By taking the emotional reaction out of the equation, the noise becomes much less distracting and eventually you no longer notice it.

You could also wear noise cancelling headphones even if you don't want to play music.

  • 2
    Your name reads a bit like a coughing sounds. :P – simbabque Aug 5 '16 at 14:45
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    It actually is a shortening of the name of a horse I used to own – HLGEM Aug 5 '16 at 15:54
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The NHS advice is:

you should seek medical advice if:

  • you've had a cough for more than three weeks

so you should check he's gone to see someone, and that he's doing something about it for his own good if not your own.

I don't think he'd take it too badly if you approached him in person. "That's a nasty cough you've got, have you seen someone about it? Well you should, you've had it for a few weeks now." etc. After all that's concern for him not yourself.

But if you want some anonymity and weight behind it then I think the best thing to do is to approach him through his manager.

  • Tell your manager that you hope your colleague gets better soon but in the meantime you're finding his coughing distracting, and ask if they can get his manager to follow up. After all, he should have sought medical advice by now (as above).
  • His manager presumably has general one-on-one chats with him - how's his work going etc., and can mention the cough as part of this: is he OK, what's he taking to get better? And if he's not doing something proactive then insist that he does, for his own good.

    And only then, if he refuses still, tell him that he's distracting other people - which doesn't need to be specific - and e.g. suggest he works from home for a bit.

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    I don't think there is a grand office conspiracy where managers somehow diagnose people's problem by having at-length closed doors meetings. Instead I think its highly offensive and nosey to go around self-diagnosing people's medical condition. What if one day someone in the office came up to you and say you have early signs of Alzheimer because it took you a second to remember my name? Would you say okay thanks I'll get it checked asap and talk to my manager in a closed door meeting about? – Dan Aug 5 '16 at 14:41
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    No, I said nothing about diagnosing his condition. I said you make sure that someone who's qualified to diagnose his condition has diagnosed his condition. And hopefully they'll fix it for him too. And if you're uncomfortable doing that yourself then get whoever's responsible for his general welfare (HR, or a manager) to talk to him instead. – Rup Aug 5 '16 at 15:28
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    With all the medical and disabilities laws out there, I highly doubt any company would risk attempting to "cure" an individual of some perceived ailment. With all the medical laws out there, a manager would not dare ask an employee to discuss their medical condition or disclose it to someone just because it annoys them. Your suggestions put a lot of risks on the company and as such I doubt any workplace would even consider it an option. – Dan Aug 5 '16 at 17:55
  • Matter of fact in the US, it is illegal for a company to even look at a person's medical records or ask them to disclose something from it. If you are sick, that is nobody's business but your own. HR, your manager, or some annoying co-worker have 0 business in it unless you decide to disclose it to them. If they get fired, a good lawyer's eye ball would probably turn into the cartoonish dollar signs as their client discuss this. – Dan Aug 5 '16 at 18:03
  • @Dan We're talking fairly self-evident symptoms here though, so I don't think that level of paranoia's reasonably justified. This article quotes an employment lawyer saying you can send home employees with coughs and colds (but you don't have to), and there are more US-examples out there, and I'm not even suggesting that in the first instance. But I don't think ignoring the situation and hoping it'll go away is the right thing to do (almost never), and there are diplomatic and tactful ways to handle this. – Rup Aug 5 '16 at 18:27

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