What employers can do to shoo the flu

Posted November 3, 2016

By Terri Dougherty, PHR, editor, J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.

The seasonal flu can be a surprisingly potent threat to workplace productivity. It infects millions of people each year, and more than 200,000 are hospitalized annually for complications from the illness.

In addition, the virus costs employers nearly 111 million workdays, or about $7 billion in sick days and lost productivity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The flu season typically starts in October, peaks between late November and March, and can last until May. It’s thought that the virus spreads when an infected person sends germ-filled droplets of water into the air while coughing, sneezing, or talking. A person can also catch the flu after touching an object where the virus is lingering (such as a doorknob or keyboard) and then bringing their hand to their mouth, eyes, or nose.

Because the flu is spread through contact with others, employers should be especially wary of employees who come down with a case of “presenteeism.” Feverish employees who head into the office because they’re insecure about their job or fear a loss of pay usually end up doing little more than spreading germs.

While these employees are physically present at work, they negatively impact productivity through reduced personal performance and by passing illness on to colleagues.

The CDC recommends that people with flu-like illness stay at home until at least 24 hours after the fever is gone. Employers can minimize presenteeism by taking actions that encourage sick employees to stay home and keep their germs to themselves:

  • Spread the word that taking a sick day when you’re truly ill is not a bad thing. If there is no reason to believe that an employee is misusing sick time, make sure he or she is not made to feel guilty about staying home.
  • Reassure workers that they won’t be punished, demoted, or fired for staying home when they’re sick.
  • Rethink a policy requiring employees to bring in a doctor’s note in order to take a sick day. The flu doesn’t always require a trip to the doctor. Employees might choose to come in sick rather than visit the doctor.
  • Lead by example. Business leaders should not think that their flu germs are any less infectious than the germs carried by others. All employees, including leaders, should be urged to stay home when sick.

A 2010 study, done in the United Kingdom by University of Warwick researchers and published in the Human Resource Management Journal, found that a manager’s reaction to absences and his or her own decisions on whether to come to work when sick are factors that can come into play when a sick employee is deciding whether or not to head to work.

The study also found that some workers come to work when they’re ill because they believe that no one else can do their job, while others would lose money if they called in sick.

Conversely, an employee who is unwell may decide to stay home because he fears making others sick or has the impression that coming to work when ill is not acceptable.

Making sure that employees understand that they don’t have to be at work when they’re sick can pay off. The Warwick study noted that a higher level of employee well-being and commitment appeared in organizations that placed less pressure on absent employees.

An employer does have the option of insisting that an obviously ill employee, who poses a significant health threat to other works, head home to recover and to keep others from catching the illness.

That scenario can be avoided with a more proactive approach, however. Making employees feel comfortable with a decision to stay home when they’re sick can yield a workforce that’s both healthier and happier.

Protect yourself from the flu

Give yourself the best chance of avoiding the flu this season by practicing these healthy habits:

  • Get a flu shot. This is the best way to protect yourself against the seasonal flu virus.
  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Disinfect objects that may have been contaminated with flu germs.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are ill.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

About the author:

Terri Dougherty

Terri Dougherty is a certified Professional in Human Resources and an editor for J. J. Keller & Associates, a nationally recognized risk management firm. The company offers a diverse line of products and services to address the broad range of responsibilities held by HR and corporate professionals. She is the author of products on topics ranging from drug-free workplace and drug & alcohol testing to employment law posting requirements. For more information, visit www.jjkeller.com/hr.