By Joyce E.A. Russell, Special to The Washington Post
WASHINGTON -- The flu season arrived earlier than usual this past fall, and it has been widely reported as one of the worst in a decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest FluView report, influenza activity remains elevated in most of the country, with key severity indicators, such as hospitalizations and deaths, up significantly.
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The CDC also estimates that, on average, seasonal flu outbreaks cost employers in the United States $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalizations and outpatient visits, which doesn't even count the indirect costs due to lost productivity and absenteeism. The heaviest period of the flu season is upon us, so it may get worse.
So what's an employer to do?
• Show support to employees and provide options for how to manage sick time so ill employees do not have to fear that they will lose their jobs if they stay home.
• Examine policies for sick leave. Does the firm have a flexible, non-punitive plan so employees can stay home when sick? Generally, the sick employees think they are doing the right thing "toughing it out" to come to work, and some employers push them to show up. Yet this spreads the disease, which can further damage employers' abilities to meet their productivity goals.
• Examine your firm's attendance policies. Some firms reward employees for working so many days without an absence, but this can lead to some employees coming to work when they are sick.
• Provide wellness resources or host a flu vaccination clinic for employees. Many firms have used the CDC's resources (such as its "Communication Toolkit for Businesses and Employers") to remind employees about how to stay healthy during the flu season. Others have set up flu vaccine clinics to make it easy for employees to get vaccinated. Employers have to be careful about pushing employees to get the flu shot if they have allergies, or have other reasons (e.g., religious) for not getting vaccinations. Employers can also pay for or subsidize the cost of flu shots, or give workers time off to get the shots.
• Review policies on telework. Can the firm allow for telework in its jobs? If so, does it enable employees to telework if they or their children are sick?
• Allow for flexible work hours. If possible, allow employees more flexibility to come in late, leave early, and work on weekends or nights to accommodate their needs to take care of their own illnesses or those of their children.
• Allow employees to make up lost sick time. Some sick employees go to work because they will lose pay if they don't show up. If they could make up the time and pay, the employees might be more inclined to stay home when they are really sick.
• Sanitize. Set up no-touch hand sanitizer stations and ensure that all common services are being sanitized frequently (elevators, door handles, etc.). Encourage employees to wash hands frequently and avoid handshaking or use latex gloves (depending on the nature of their work).
• Devise business continuity and contingency plans. Employers need to have plans in place in case there are serious absenteeism problems. Identifying essential employees and business functions is also an important part of arriving at these contingency plans. Have someone in the firm assume the role of workplace illness coordinator to keep statistics on absenteeism, sick leave, etc.
• Establish an emergency communication plan. Document key contacts and have a plan for informing employees about actions.
• Reevaluate how you conduct business. Limit meetings, use conference calls or video conferencing for large group meetings so that people do not have to be in proximity to each other.
• Allow employees to report concerns about sickness in the workplace. Provide a way for employees to anonymously report health issues so management can look into the situation and encourage the sick employee to go home to rest (and not infect the rest of the office).
• Let sick employees know you care about their health and well-being. Either call them or send a note letting them know you are thinking of them or send a care package to let them know you hope they get better soon.
Some larger firms even have child-care services that have separate facilities for sick children. This enables parents to have a place to take their children so they won't have to miss work if their children are sick.
The flu season should prompt employers to evaluate their policies for sicknesses at work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that nearly 80 percent of full-time employees do have paid sick leave, but only 25 percent of part-timers are offered sick leave, and most self-employed workers and contract workers do not have paid-leave benefits. This means that many of them may be going to work when sick. This raises many questions for employers as to how to best manage their workplaces to ensure they are healthy, yet at the same time, productive.
• Joyce E.A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.