An IT guy at a San Francisco tech startup comes to work looking like death warmed over near the end of flu season. He is visibly ill and sweating. Unfortunately, he’s also responsible for installing vital software to everyone’s computers in the office and doesn’t want to take off sick in the middle of the upgrade.
His colleagues beg him to go home, telling him they’ll be OK. Everyone is overreacting, he says, and pretends to lick their keyboards and cough on everything.
The upgrade continues despite his illness and soon people are calling in sick. All told, 20 percent of the workforce was out sick for multiple days; a few had to be hospitalized. He is confronted with this; his response: They’re whining.
This true story unfortunately isn’t that uncommon. Even though 82 percent of HR managers in a recent study by OfficeTeam said their company encourages staff to stay home when they’re sick, 85 percent of workers in the same survey announced that they have gone to the office while sick anyway.
The takeaway? If managers want to keep their teams healthy, they’ve got make the message a lot clearer, and also practice what they preach.
It’s tricky to determine whether a person who thinks they don’t need to call in sick is, in fact, right. When people have been sick and are on the mend again, they might still sound terrible but feel much better. But conversely, people are often contagious a few days before they start exhibiting symptoms. “It’s those days when they’re still coughing but their fever has broken that an employee might think, ‘I’m lethargic, but if I go ahead and drive in, I could get my work done,’ ” said Claire Bissot, managing director of CBIZ HR Services.
Not having sick days, saving sick time in case they need it later, and not wanting to burden co-workers with extra work were other common survey responses. “A lot of times, people feel guilty about making colleagues take up the slack for work they’ve left behind,” said HR consultant Arquella Hargrove of Meta Training and Consulting in Houston. Whatever the reason, as Lisa Oyler, HR director at Access Development Corp. in Salt Lake City points out, workers would be much better served taking real time off to recuperate fully. “If you take care of yourself, you’re going to get better quicker.”
Again, it’s not just about the worker but also their colleagues. “When you’re contagious, think about your community and stay home.” Oyler said. When employees don’t heed this advice, management needs to intervene. Oyler recalled a time when a colleague came into work with a scratchy throat. “As soon as everyone found out his kids had strep, our manager sent him home.” Not every boss reacts so well, though. Bissot was stunned at the story about the office epidemic at the San Francisco tech startup and said, “Shame on that manager. I would have said, ‘Here’s a mask and gloves, now teach me how to do what you need to do so you can go home.’ ”
Managers can avoid having to take a forceful stand against sick colleagues by making it 100 percent clear it’s OK for anyone to be out sick. “Deadlines are deadlines, but employees’ health is also important,” Oyler said. “You can’t make employees feel guilty. If an employee wakes up sick, there should be no doubt in their mind that they should stay home.”
Companies can do a lot to encourage wellness in the workplace. Influenza costs the American economy $87 billion in lost productivity each year, but only about half of Americans get vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Getting vaccinated is the No. 1 way to prevent flu, according to the CDC. It’s especially important for pregnant women, senior citizens and people with asthma, diabetes or certain other immune-compromising conditions, as they’re at higher risk for flu-related complications.
The CDC recommends hosting a flu vaccination clinic in the workplace to provide shots at low cost or no cost. That makes it as easy as possible for employees to protect themselves and check off that annual task from their to-do lists.
Bissot’s company opens up its flu vaccine clinic to family and friends of employees as well. “I think inviting the whole family in is a great idea, because if the kids are sick, the parents stay home sick,” she said.
There’s no such thing as emphasizing it too many times: “Stay home if you’re sick” is a message that employees need to hear again and again. “HR can communicate it but it doesn’t really mean anything unless employees hear it from their managers,” Oyler said.
Posting fliers encouraging thorough hand-washing and healthy sneezing hygiene can help.
“The more places you remind people to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer, the better off you are,” Bissot said. “During this season, you can make a fun gift out of it,” she added. “You can print a reminder and deliver it to everyone with tissues and two Emergen-Cs to raise awareness.” She recommends that companies buy hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and facial tissues in bulk to make them easily accessible in the office.
Beyond influenza, diseases such as norovirus can spread like wildfire in a workplace. Often described colloquially as “stomach flu” or “food poisoning,” the gastrointestinal malady is highly infectious and spread both by direct contact and through the air.
Knowing that germs can live on hard surfaces for up to 72 hours, Bissot recommends talking to the office’s cleaning crew to make sure they are sanitizing doorknobs, kitchen appliances and vending machine buttons. “It may cost the company a little extra,” Bissot said, “But one hour of a cleaning crew compared to having seven to 10 people out of every 50 sick is worth it.”
It’s one thing for a staff member to come to work sick to avoid falling behind, but managers should also be aware of employees’ economic reasons for working while sick. “Nonexempt people might not be paid for sick days, so if you have someone that really needs to be paid and be working, they’re going to come sick,” Hargrove said. The same goes for people who have run out of days in their PTO banks. She advises managers to be as flexible as they can to keep infectious workers out of the office. “If they come in and you have to send them home, maybe you can allow them to make up that time in the same payroll period.”
Allowing people for whom it’s practical to work from home to do so is one option to get teams through contagious illnesses unscathed. “If they really need to be there, though, we can come up with a creative solution like setting them up in a private office on a critical day,” Oyler said.
It’s important for leaders to have a contingency plan for flu season and beyond. It’s safe to assume a few folks will get sick at any given time. Managers should know in advance what resources are at their disposal. “Be proactive and make sure there’s a backup plan, so if someone is out, someone else can pick up the slack,” Hargrove said. “If people can work from home, that’s fine. If you have someone out for too long, maybe bring someone in on a temporary basis.”
And managers should remember that employees will follow the boss’ lead: Supervisors need to be willing to call in sick themselves.
“It all starts with managers,” Bissot says. “You can’t try to enforce a rule when you aren’t following it yourself. If you contaminate other people, you’ll just make things harder for yourself.”
Brandi Britton is a district vice president for OfficeTeam, a staffing service company based in the Bay Area. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.