The Cold and Flu Catch 22
by Suzanne Dyer-Gear, MAS, SPHR

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Imagine going to work tomorrow morning only to find that one of your employees has come down with a nasty virus. They reported to work, but are at their desk or work area sneezing, coughing and looking pretty awful. What should we do? Praise them for coming to work sick, or send them home to bed until they get better? Tough call. We no doubt need them there to perform important duties, but at the same time we may feel badly for them because they’re miserable. Let’s even put aside our concern for their health for a minute. When deciding how to deal with employees who come to work sick, what’s the better business decision?

In many parts of the country, fall and winter means cold and flu season. If we run our own businesses, we might try our hardest to work despite illness, trying to “tough it out” until the virus runs its course. But what about our employees? Should we also encourage them to come to work when they’re ill?

Employee absenteeism is a big-ticket expense for many organizations. Sick pay (if it’s offered), lost productivity, and paying for a replacement worker, all add up to significant costs. One recent survey found that absenteeism costs companies over $700 per worker per year. Certainly we want our employees to come to work no matter what. Or do we?

We’ve probably all worked beside or had a meeting with someone who was obviously under the weather. Some of us may have even had the distinct pleasure of shaking the hand of a customer or client just after they’ve sneezed into it. And chances are many of us will experience the scenario described above when someone who works for us comes to work looking as if they should be hospitalized instead. As employers we may want and need to reduce absenteeism, but we may also wonder how many other workers our loyal employees have infected by coming to work when they’re sick.

And herein lies the Catch 22. Is it more advantageous to have employees who are truly sick and infectious stay home until they get better? How much work do employees who feel horrible really accomplish in a day? Would a cost-benefit analysis find that our companies in reality lose more productivity by having several people sick after being exposed to “typhoid Mark or Mary” while at work?

While we ponder our decision of how to handle these employees, we can try to help our employees from becoming ill in the first place. Some things we can do to try to prevent our workplaces from becoming breeding grounds for viruses include:

  1. Encourage your employees to get flu shots. Many organizations pick up the tab for the cost of the vaccine, and some have health care professionals come to the workplace to administer them, with no cost and minimal inconvenience to employees.
  2. Circulate health information to employees about cold and flu prevention. Include articles in company newsletters that describe ways to avoid illness. For instance, experts say that something as simple as frequent hand washing can significantly curb the spread of viruses in the workplace.
  3. Make our stance on the subject clear to employees. If we want them to stay home when they’re infectious, say so. Even more importantly, discourage backhanded insults like “Did you enjoy your vacation day?” when they return from an illness. Comments like this make it clear that despite what is formally said, it’s not okay to stay home from work sick.
  4. Lead by example. If we come down with a bug, staying home for a day and avoiding opportunities to infect the entire workforce may actually be the right business decision.
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With more than twenty years experience in Human Resources and Organizational Development, Suzanne Dyer-Gear has a proven track record of developing and implementing systems that significantly reduce costs while enhancing organizational and employee productivity and satisfaction. Suzanne is widely regarded as a dynamic trainer, having developed and delivered hundreds of seminars on more than 30 different management and H.R. topics, and has presented at national and international conferences. In addition to her consultation practice, Suzanne teaches both undergraduate and graduate level college courses on a number of Management, Leadership, Human Resources and Organizational Development topics. She has published over 70 articles in newspapers and trade magazines, and is currently working on her first book, ‘Lost Employees: How Good Organizations Lose Good People—While Still Employing Them’. This article is provided as general information, and is not intended to substitute for legal or other professional advice.

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