The cost of the flu on American businesses is staggering. One article states that the flu causes 100 million lost work days each year. Because about two-thirds of the time lost is taken as paid sick days, employers loss over $10 billion in productivity. Meanwhile, the other third costs employees $6.8 billion in lost wages.
This year’s flu season is one of the worst in modern times, according to most news reports. As someone who suffered through it last month (despite a flu shot in September), I am sympathetic to those who get sick. I was fortunate that my schedule allowed me to stay at home for a week, but many workers don’t have that flexibility. What should employers do to manage through flu seasons?
OSHA provides basic recommendations for those who don’t work in healthcare (who obviously need to use greater precautions). In general, OSHA recommends that employees exercise basic hygiene and avoid contact with those who are ill.
- Promote vaccination
- Encourage sick workers to stay home;
- Promote hand hygiene and cough etiquette
- Keep the workplace clean
- Address employee travel concerns.
The CDC and NIOSH have published similar guidelines for employers.
Managers, how does your workplace measure up? At a minimum, employers should maintain high standards of workplace cleanliness and offer vaccinations free or at minimal cost to employees through medical plans. But how does your workplace culture handle employee absences and travel issues?
Too many employers set performance goals that do not tolerate absences that don’t amount to FMLA-covered serious health conditions.
For example, I never sought medical treatment for my illness last month and didn’t take any medications other than over-the-counter remedies. Yet for three days I was unable to concentrate on much, and I didn’t have any energy for several days after that, though I did get quite a bit of work done at home during my recuperation.
In fact, about 80% of sick employees go to work for part of all of the days they are sick.
Does your workplace make maximum use of flexible work practices? Granted, some jobs lend themselves more to flexibility than others. But where working from home, reduced or shifting hours, or other flexible arrangements are possible, are your employees encouraged to use them when they are ill? What about when their children are sick?
And do your leave policies permit machine operators, technicians, and others who must be in the workplace enough sick days to avoid spreading illness to others on your premises? Encouraging good attendance is important, but it shouldn’t be the primary measure of successful performance.
One employee in the workplace who misses two or three days from work is preferable to that employee infecting five other employees who then each miss one day. The cascading effect of contagion is much more costly than dealing with sick employees on a more humane and flexible basis. And, as the statistics cited at the top of this post indicate, the total costs are huge.
How do you think employers should balance productivity and flexibility when dealing with sick employees?