How Your Company Should Handle Flu Season at Work

Feb 18, 2014
5 Min Read

If coughing and sneezing are familiar noises in your workplace right now, it’s a sign that your company isn’t handling flu season correctly – and is risking illness sidelining your whole office.

Too often, employees come to work sick because they don’t want to be seen as slacking off or because they don’t have sick leave to cover them if they stay home. And that’s especially prevalent in the U.S., which is the only major industrialized country that doesn’t require employers to provide paid sick days. (In fact, nearly 40 million Americans don’t have a single paid sick day to recover from illness. Contrast that to Japan, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Singapore, all of which require employers to provide at least 10 paid sick days.)

So, with flu season hitting many areas of the country hard, how should employers respond? Here are five keys to treating employees well and keeping illness from spreading through your workplace.

1. Make it clear people shouldn’t come to work sick – and mean it. Some companies say they want sick employees to stay home, but then subtly (or not so subtly) discourage people from using sick time. Be clear with your employees that they should be at home taking care of themselves when they’re sick, not at work spreading germs to coworkers. Back this up by sending people home if they come to work obviously sick.

2. Ensure that managers model the policy you want. If employees see their managers dragging themselves into work when they’re sick, they’ll assume that they’re expected to do the same. Managers need to model the behavior they want others to follow. In this case, that means staying home when they’re sick.

3. Don’t require doctor’s notes from sick employees. Colds and flus don't generally require a doctor’s care. Requiring a doctor’s note in order to use sick time discourage employees from staying home when they’re ill, is an unfair burden on truly sick employees (because who wants to drag themselves to a doctor when a few days of resting in bed will cure them?), drives up health care costs by pushing people to the doctor when they only need home care, and signals to your employees that you don’t trust them enough to treat them like adults. If an employee is using too much sick time, managers can deal with that head-on, but company policies shouldn’t penalize everyone.

4. Make it easy to get flu shots. Consider offering flu shots at your workplace, ideally without charge to employees who want them. It’ll pay off in cost savings down the road, when fewer of your workers are out sick this winter.

5. Provide paid sick time. This is the most important item on the list, because if you don’t do it, none of the rest may matter: Companies that don’t provide paid sick time to employees can expect to have many workers come to work sick, thus infecting other workers, who in turn will also show up sick. This is bad for employees, bad for customers (who may also get infected), and ultimately bad for the company.

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