By Bahk Eun-ji
It has become a norm to wear face masks on subways and buses, and in other public spaces since the coronavirus outbreak, but there has been a raging debate over whether or not it is appropriate to wear them at the office.
Some say it is necessary for people to wear a mask at all times to protect themselves from the contagious virus, but others argue covering one's face is considered ill-mannered among office workers.
Yoon Hae-rim, a 34-year-old office worker in Seoul recently had an unpleasant experience when she wore a face mask at her office.
After reading a number of articles about benefits of wearing a face mask, she decided to wear it for herself to cover her mouth and nose, even at her office where she works in close proximity to others throughout the day.
"I saw the news about two confirmed cases of the viral disease among the 28 patients here, who carried on with their daily lives for days or even weeks, and unknowingly put others at risk of the viral disease. Because the virus spreads through respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes, I think I should wear one to protect me and my colleagues from exposure," Yoon said.
But more than a dozen of people approached her and told her she was overreacting as there weren't any infected people in the office.
"I ended up taking the mask off because I was literally fed up with dealing with their complaints," Yoon said.
On the other hand, Lee Se-joong, another 38-year-old office worker in Seoul, couldn't decide whether or not to tell a junior staff member to wear a face mask as a safety measure because he was coughing and sneezing at his office.
"For a couple of days, he had been coughing and sneezing continuously but never wore a mask. I know he is not a patient of the viral disease, but I ended up being reluctant to touch a door handle he grabbed, and even to have lunch with him," Lee said.
But Lee said he can't express his thoughts because he was also afraid of being criticized for being too sensitive.
"I asked him politely, 'why don't you wear mask?' during a meeting, but he just shrugged and said 'Oh, I feel stuffy when I wear it.' So I decided not say anything more about it."
Although wearing mask for protection is not yet scientifically proven, experts said it is worth wearing one indoors at the office or in the elevator.
"There is little possibility of the virus spreading through the air outside. It is highly recommended to wear one regardless if it feels suffocating to wear, especially when you're talking with someone near you," said Lee Jae-gap, professor of Hallym University Kangnam Sacred Heart Hospital.
Because the virus spreads through respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes, masks certainly protect people from exposure by covering the nose and mouth.
Lee said the most important thing is to allow staff members to get their rest or work from home instead of coming to the workplace if they feel sick.
"It will be useless conflicts over wearing mask if people feel comfortable to get a day-off or sick leave when they have respiratory problem, but it's difficult for them to do so in Korea's corporate culture," Lee said.