It's enough to make you sick -- co-workers who cough, sneeze and hack their way through the day while you try to fend off the swarm of germs.

With the arrival of the cold and flu season, the concern over people coming to work when they're contagious has become so prevalent that workplace experts have assigned the circumstance its own jargon: "presenteeism." As opposed to absenteeism, it refers to people who are present when they probably shouldn't be.

In addition to potentially making healthy people sick, it also can make them angry.

"I don't know if it is because of worries about job security or if it's just plain bad manners," said Clay Smith of Shakopee. "I'm dealing with it" right now, he said of working amid sick co-workers.

People who work while sick often think they deserve thanks rather than scorn, said Pat Staaden, chief operating officer of Trusight, a consulting firm in Plymouth.

"They're often doing it out of a sense of loyalty to their employer and to their fellow workers," Staaden said.

Others feel pressured by management to come in to the office, said Fran Sepler, president of Sepler & Associates, a Twin Cities human-resources consulting firm.

"Even if a company has a policy urging sick workers to stay home, these individual managers let it be known implicitly that employees who stay home are not considered dedicated," Sepler said.

Sick workers typically perform below their normal standards. The number of mistakes jumps and in physical jobs the likelihood of injury increases. And with it, the cost of workers' compensation claims. "Employees working at diminished capacity" cost businesses as much as $250 billion a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So how sick is too sick -- to go into the office?

"Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules," said Claudia Miller, an epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health. "Keep in mind that some illnesses are infectious before symptoms appear."

Wearing a mask does very little good, said Dr. Melody Mendiola of the Hennepin County Medical Center's clinic in Brooklyn Center. The biggest danger comes from contact between your hands and surfaces that have been touched by the hands of a sick person. The best solution is a simple one.

"Practice good hand hygiene," she said. "That's the No. 1 thing."

People touch their mouth, nose and eyes much more than they realize, Miller said. It's a tough habit to break. According to a study at the University of California, Berkeley, which analyzed video footage of students milling around campus, we touch our faces an average of 16 times an hour.

Blaming the recession

The person credited with coining the term presenteeism is Cary Cooper, chairman of the United Kingdom's Academy of Social Sciences. He lays much of the blame on the recession and the resulting cutbacks to the workforce, which he says have instilled the fear that workers who stay home run the risk of being perceived as being dispensable.

Some people also point to the human relations policy called Personal Time Off or Paid Time Off (abbreviated as PTO) in which traditional sick days are replaced by a pool of general time off that includes sick time, vacations and holidays. The theory behind PTO is that workers who are using sick days as bonus days off will stop doing that if they have a personal investment in the time.

PTO has worked, said Karin Kurt, past president of the Minnesota chapter of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources. In fact, it has worked too well: People have started to consider every day they stay home as a day of forfeited free time.

"They see it as a trade-off between a sick day and day of vacation, and they're more inclined to focus on vacation," she said.

But just restoring the sick-day system isn't going to solve the problem, said Kurt, who works for the city of Edina. According to World at Work, a nonprofit organization that monitors human relations issues, the majority of full-time U.S. workers -- 54 percent -- still operate under a traditional sick-day policy.

Sick kid equals sick day

So why aren't people using their sick days when they get sick? Some people feel pressure to work because they've used up their available time off -- often tending to their sick children.

"I've run out of leeway," said Marilyn Johnson of Minneapolis, who feels she "already has spent more time than I should have" staying home from work when her children are too sick to go to school.

Other people can't stand the idea of work piling up in their absence. In addition, experts say that people with limited options for employment are much more likely to punch in even while sick.

And there are those who simply refuse to believe that they're sick. They are identifiable by their mantra -- "Don't worry, I'm not contagious" -- which is often punctuated by coughing.

The prognosis for the immediate future is not encouraging. With no predictions of a dramatic resurgence in the economy, most experts expect that the pressure on workers to fight for their jobs is going to grow, and with it will come heightened stress about missing work.

"It's happening in every workplace now," Kurt said. "It doesn't matter if you're in government or private enterprise, there's a lot of pressure to do more with less."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392