Short sick time policies might be helping to spread the flu at work
- In a new Staples Business Advantage survey, 44% of the respondents said they had the flu last year, and 45% of them blame their colleagues for coming to work sick and spreading the virus. Citing a Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) report, the business-to-business Staples division noted that people can be infected with the flu a day before symptoms appear and up to a week afterwards, and that people are the most contagious three to four days after becoming ill. According to Staples, employees took on average just 2.7 days of sick time, which likely means that employees are coming to work during the most contagious stages of the illness. More than half of respondents (53%) who were out with the flu last year admitted returning to work before feeling better.
- Survey results suggested that employees skipping the vaccine and being fearful of taking enough sick days to get well is behind the spread of the flu virus at work. Just 47% of the respondents said they normally get a flu shot. However, when asked what employers are doing to protect the workplace against the flu, only 53% of their employers offer sick leave; just 51% provide cleaning services for bathrooms and common areas; and fewer than half offer tissues and anti-viral cleaning supplies. Also, 36% of employers offer vaccination days and 17% let employees work from home.
- Baby boomers and women in the survey were more proactive about taking precautions against the flu. However, given the severity of last year's flu season, half of the respondents said they were concerned about the flu this season. According to the CDC, the virus was widespread in more than two-thirds of the U.S. by the end of the week of Dec. 23, 2017, and widespread throughout the country between Dec. 30, 2017, and March 3, 2018.
Employers can better protect the workplace from flu outbreaks by stepping up the precautions that survey respondents addressed, including allowing employees to work from home or providing vaccination days to encourage inoculations. Some employers are offering vaccinations on-site and including a focus on flu prevention in their wellness programs. Three basic tips employers can use to get through the flu season are: 1) offer flu shots at work; 2) encourage workers and their families to get vaccinated; and 3) ask employees to stay home when they're sick.
Also, HR managers can help mitigate employees' fear of staying home sick beyond a few days by creating a culture of health. Just telling employees to stay home while sick or to get vaccinated might not be enough to get them to do so. By building and sustaining a culture of health, employers can create a supportive and energizing work environment that engages workers in healthful activities, habits and lifestyles.
According to the CDC, the flu leads to $10.4 billion in direct medical costs and $16.3 billion in lost earnings each year. But mandatory flu vaccinations have consequences. In 2017, Saint Vincent Health Center in Erie, Pa., paid $300,000 to resolve a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) suit over its mandatory flu shot policy. Similar suits have followed.