Recent posts on workplace etiquette issues have opened the floodgates; questions are pouring in daily from Graces suffering the Gruntliness of others. In today's mail....
There is a woman in my office that has had a chronic cough for about 6 months. She attributes this to her medication, allergies and/or addiction to sunflower seeds. Let me tell you, this cough is loud and sudden, and in a quiet workplace, very disruptive. It is such a piercing cough that it makes me shudder every time I hear it. I have sympathy for her if she is not feeling well but she makes no effort to muffle the cough or walk away to the ladies room during sudden fits. I keep thinking she will get better and it will go away but it seems to be getting worse. How does a Grace deal with such a distraction?
That does sound dreadful. I was in a book club with a woman who had similar issues and it drove me nuts--in fact, it contributed to my departure from the group. But you don't have that option at your place of work. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Express empathy and concern for the condition--couched in suggestions for addressing the problem: "Gosh, that cough sounds awful, can I offer you a lozenge?" ["the phone number for an allergist; a glass of water; chewing gum as a substitute for the seeds?"] This tactic has the dual benefit of potentially stopping the cough temporarily while also pointing out the disruption. Hopefully this conveys that you were so troubled by the cough that you felt inclined to try to deal with it, thus prompting her to take steps to do the same.
2. Confidentially speak to your HR person; this disruption does seem to fit into workplace comfort and productivity. While health issues are dicey in terms of confidentiality and discrimination, it is worth asking the question discreetly.
3. If all else fails, procure some noise cancelling headphones. You ought to be able to get your company to provide them since they seem to be necessary for your concentration due to conditions in the workplace that are beyond your control.
For a good laugh between coughs, have a look at how Kramer dealt with his cough. Gosh, I miss Seinfeld.
Good luck and thanks for writing,