Some people I know tell me frankly that they regard the medical leave provided by their employers as an entitlement to be fully exploited. They consider those 28 days as already set aside for them, so they plan their yearly utilisation like the rest of us would schedule our annual leave.

Of course they merrily take their annual leave too, so these privileged creatures enjoy some 49 days off work a year. Ordinary folk get 21, along with the one or two days they spend being really ill, which obviously cannot be enjoyed.

I do not know how those special souls wrangle two dozen-plus days' worth of medical certificates from doctors - perhaps they are spectacularly good actors - but they seem to manage fine, and apparently without conscience.

Germ-loaded die-hards

At the other extreme are sluggers who wouldn't be caught dead on sick leave. They literally have to be strapped to hospital beds before admitting they need time off work, and even then, are sure to be seen hobbling back to the office as soon as they can move.

These people come crawling in sneezing and coughing (and infecting everyone else), typing with one hand while the arm they broke in yesterday's car accident is held together by bandages, or running to the loo every few minutes between phone calls as they juggle deals and diarrhoea.

The silent majority

Neither extreme is appreciated by co-workers with half an ounce of good sense. Responsible individuals who take medical leave only when genuinely ill deeply resent covering for colleagues who constantly disappear.

But they also do not want to catch the flu or worse from "heroes" who insist on making an appearance, contaminating every surface. Even if the ailment isn't infectious, others feel uneasy when the boss doesn't make sick staff go home, because it suggests the sloggers are doing the right thing, irresponsibly setting the bar at a level beyond the reach of mere mortals.

Unless your job is a matter of life and death, most co-workers would appreciate it if you would stay home when sick.

Delicate balance

To improve attendance in staff who call in sick for every miniscule ache, employers may toy with the idea of financially rewarding employees who take little medical leave. But this is a delicate matter, for it may encourage some staff not to see the doctor even when ill.

The opposite tack would be to penalise takers of full, or almost-full, annual medical leave. While this affects the malingerers, it also unfairly punishes staff who struggle with chronic illnesses that require a lot of management, but who otherwise do their best to contribute to the company.

In the absence of a workable solution, the responsible majority continue to suffer quietly, gritting their teeth as they do their colleagues' duties, and holding their breaths as the die-hard-with-the-mother-of-all-flus expels the contents of his lungs at the next desk. They can only fire dirty looks at the culprits. Now if looks could kill.