Question:

I am concerned about employee absenteeism due to the flu. Is there anything I can do as a business owner to prevent absenteeism, and if my employees do get sick, keep them from coming to work when they’re sick?

Answer:

The H1N1 virus (or “swine flu”) is certainly making headlines again as the regular flu season begins. Employers across the country are concerned about the impact that these flu viruses may have on their employees and on their businesses. While many employers worry about problems caused by employee absenteeism, a potentially more serious problem is the one you mentioned, which is sick employees coming to work when they shouldn’t.

Studies have shown that employees who come to work when they’re sick can be extremely costly to their employers. In a 2007 survey, 87% of employers reported that they had employees with colds or the flu report to work, despite the fact that they were ill with easily spreadable viruses. Nearly half of those employers surveyed identified this issue as being problematic for their businesses. The results of another employer survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review indicate that sick employees who go to work may end up costing their employers more in indirect costs than absenteeism and medical costs combined.

The problem with sick employees coming to work is essentially one of productivity. While absenteeism obviously has a negative effect on productivity, sick employees tend to be unproductive and they have the potential to infect otherwise healthy employees, who in turn become unproductive themselves due to illness. Sick employees may also be distracted or unable to focus on their work. Depending on the nature of your business, this could present serious safety issues.

One of the main reasons employees give for coming to work when they’re sick is because they are too busy to stay home and/or because they don’t think there is anyone available to cover their workload for them. More than half of the employees who participated in the 2007 survey reported coming to work while sick because they did not want to use up their vacation or sick time, and an equal number of employees stated that they feared being disciplined if they stayed home and missed work. Many of these employee concerns are a result of employers’ efforts to minimize employee absenteeism, which can inadvertently establish a work culture where absences are perceived to be unacceptable. However, as in the case of employees who are sick, this mentality can backfire and lead to problems like lost productivity and contagious employees in the workplace.

While there is no perfect solution to the problem of sick employees, there are some things that you as the employer can do to help keep your workplace healthy, reduce absenteeism, and minimize the impact sick employees can have on your business:

  1. Distribute information to your employees about not spreading germs, such as washing hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, covering up when coughing or sneezing, and staying home if they are sick or are having flu-like symptoms.
  2. Provide your employees with a health care plan—employees who are unwilling or unable to spend money on medical care are more likely to be sick at work, and are also more likely to have recurring or serious illnesses.
  3. Provide your employees with sick leave and encourage them to use it when they are ill. You might also consider letting employees carry over some of their sick leave from year to year, so they don’t feel like they have to “ration” it when they are ill.
  4. If possible, encourage employees to work from home if they are ill but feel well enough to work and wish to do so. Make sure you keep accurate records of the time they spend working from home.
  5. Offer free or low-cost flu shots for your employees. Organizations such as the Visiting Nurses Association can arrange to hold a mini-flu clinic at your place of employment. The convenience and low (or zero) cost of these flu shots may encourage employees who otherwise would not get vaccinated to get a shot.

By taking steps such as those listed above, you will convey to your employees that you are concerned about their health and wellbeing, and also that you want them to do whatever necessary to keep themselves and their coworkers healthy—even if that means staying home from work.
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