The persistent cough. The headache. Welcome to the illness which has no name and is sweeping an office near you.
I've had some godawful thing for two weeks and counting. I thought I was getting better, started to do my usual thing and then crashed. But when people ask me what I've got, I just repeat the GP's response. It's a virus. At which point no one cares.
Far more effective to be able to say to colleagues and friends that you've had a positive test for the flu and it's likely you will be off work for days, maybe weeks. Or God forbid, you've got measles (yes, we've got way too many cases this year) or chicken pox. Unless your disease has a name, you're unlikely to ever be able to say you were part of the 2019 epidemic of coughing all night and sneezing all day.
Blinding headaches. Reams of mucus (sorry). But ABS figures released on Thursday show, for those of us employed full-time, that there's been a spike of nearly 40 per cent for those of us taking sick leave of up to nine hours and more than 20 per cent taking sick leave of up to 19 hours, comparing this August to the same time last year.
What is it? There is zero scientific evidence that those of us on sick leave all have the same illness. The folks at FluTracking only care about you if you have a fever. Once you tick fever, there's a whole bunch of other questions which shows it cares. A cough? Not so much.
The various NSW health departments want names, dates and strains. The only friend the ill have right now is the ABS and it can't categorise us either. But Mario Tascone, chief operating officer of Chemist Warehouse, says there's been a 30 per cent spike in sales of cough and cold medication compared to this time last year (also, warning, Tascone says the demand for hayfever remedies is huge and early).
So, what to do when you don't know what you've got?
University of Queensland associate professor Ian Mackay is a virologist. He acknowledges that unless your disease has a name, it's hard to get much sympathy. He likes my list of flu, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox and adds Ebola. Those are the diseases with brand awareness. He would absolutely love it if people stopped coming to work when they are "hacking up a lung".
"The most practical thing is - don't come to work when you are symptomatic and producing secretions," he says.
The running nose, the sneezing, just the use of tissues, tells you that you've got some kind of a bug that is likely to be contagious. Australia, says Mackay, is in the grip of presenteeism, which is fantastic if your aim is to spread your virus but not so good if you'd like everyone to stay well.
"Everybody feels they have to come to work in case they are seen as weak, or not good enough."
He would be very keen to see bosses to take a stand, to come out as one and say, don't come to work if you are sick.
"Get your boss to support your decision to stay home and to say that publicly," he says.
Workers might feel they are trying to maintain productivity by coming to work when sick but "your productivity might wipe out the entire office", says Mackay. In fact, he's got clear directions. Only come to work once you've stopped sneezing and using those tissues. Coughing can be more contained and we already know we have to cough into our elbows. Sneezes can be so sudden you forget where your snot is.
It's not just the public announcements where bosses could assist. New research led by the University of Arizona's Kelly Reynolds advises employers to email workers when there's a risk of virus spread in the office. Make sure there's surface disinfection of commonly touched shared objects.
The research reveals the sites of peak grubbiness: the fridge, drawer handles, taps in the lunchroom, the soap dispensers in the women's bathrooms. Also please try to avoid the handles on the main exit doors of your building. Bless automatic opening doors. Employers should remind people to wash their hands or use hand sanitisers at their desks, although Mackay says soap and water is the gold standard.
These are all great ideas to minimise virus spread, says Mackay. Which we won't do. We are all terrified of what will happen if the office recognises it can do without us! (This, he says, is just another example of how imposter syndrome makes life difficult for us.)
"And we've all got job deadlines," he sighs (which even on sick leave we are trying to manage). At least he's not sniffling.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology and a regular columnist.