Katy Guest: Why can't people who are ill stay off work?

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A couple of years ago, a cold remedy manufacturer ran a series of Tube station adverts promoting their hot lemon drink. "Question:" they ran. "What kind of person would go to work with flu? Answer: the kind of person who's after your job." It wasn't exactly aspirational advertising, but it contained just the right blend of machismo and blind paranoia to get the workforce gulping down paracetamol and hauling into the office to spread their germs. It lent a whole new layer of meaning to the term "affluenza".

Well I hope that the hot lemon pushers are satisfied, because this week Britain has been hit by an infectious fever of coughing, spitting and vomiting the like of which has not been seen for years, and it's all down to those bloody-minded soldierers-on – working, commuting and breathing while their snotty little bodies are seeping more unpleasantness than the Pirbright laboratory.

The quaintly-named winter vomiting disease (or norovirus, which looks better on the doctor's note) has struck down an almost unprecedented number of victims this winter. More than 3.6 million people have apparently called in sick. By some estimates, that is one in eight of the workforce.

The disease causes not just diarrhoea and vomiting but "projectile vomiting", which is the stomach's version of man flu and sounds so much more dramatic when you report back to your colleagues on What I Did On My Christmas Holidays. Doctors are warning that it is 100,000 times more infectious than salmonella and begging people to stay off work for two days after the symptoms have gone away. The doctors are right: people really must be sick. They are desperate to get back to work to squeeze a few hours in between replastering the walls with their own vomit. They need serious help.

It is not a new revelation that nobody ever looked back from their deathbed and wished they had spent more time in the office; but people ignore this truism more and more. In every workplace there is one hypochondriac who takes enough sick leave for everyone else put together, while 99 per cent of the workforce struggle in regardless. "Oh it's only a punctured lung," they sigh, martyrishly. "I've got another one."

It is a frustrating paradox that the more clued up we become about baroque new diseases and the more we moan about our health (I know a man who had bird flu and a brain tumour in one afternoon and still wouldn't go away and see a doctor), the less we are willing to give ourselves a break and go home. Of course we all believe that our company will collapse without us. But that's not what the employers are saying. Some have had to rename sickies "duvet days" to persuade employees that it really is OK to stay in bed once in a while instead of shivering at a keyboard pretending to work for seven antisocial hours. Others are plain refusing to give only one day off at a time. What more do you want, a note from your mum?

A medical student friend of mine has discovered a brilliant illness that I intend to sign myself off with as soon as possible. It is called non-specific idiopathic neuralgia and it means a pain somewhere that you don't really understand. It sounds much more serious than winter vomiting disease, you don't have to come back half a stone thinner to prove that you've had it, and anybody can reasonably claim to have suffered. So lie down, be poorly and be proud. What kind of person goes to work with flu? A selfish snotrag, that's who.

Just rise above it all, Cecilia

Nicolas Sarkozy has obviously been reading the guides on what to do when you get dumped. Fortunately he has not taken the obligatory first three steps of the chucked: hit the bottle, burn her photographs, cut off all your hair. Instead he has skipped straight to phase four: publicly dating a woman who looks just like his ex-wife, only younger and prettier than she was. The French president's love affair with Carla Bruni is very romantic, but it also seems perfectly calculated to rub Cécilia's nose in what she is missing. Sadly, even an Italian supermodel in her bikini will struggle to erase Cécilia's words as she left their marriage for good: "I met someone. I fell in love. I left." Merde.

* As well-disposed as I am to any initiative that tries to teach children how to behave on public transport (although it's usually the parents who need smacked legs and sending to bed with no pudding), this new course at Brighton College seems slightly to have misunderstood its target market. The £25,000-a-year school is planning compulsory lessons in etiquette and manners for all its students, to include instruction in ironing a shirt and travelling on public transport. Now, leaving aside the obvious quibble that nobody with a spare £25k a year would ever do their own ironing or get on a bus, how does the headmaster think his polite young charges are likely to be received by the feral youth they will encounter outside these charming tutorials? Incidentally, are the boys on the 171 to Catford a one-off collective or has the trousers-round-the-bottom look lately been joined by a fashion for t-shirts around necks with arms out of the armholes and bare tummies?

k.guest@independent.co.uk

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