Respond to the shortage by encouraging sick days

So, if the flu season hits your community hard, will your health care staff suffer because they didn’t get enough flu shots? Quite possibly. But there is something risk managers can do: Urge employees to stay home when they’re sick. Flu will spread much more rapidly and cause far more disruption to a health care organization if employees report for duty when sick, says Lori Rosen, JD, a workplace analyst for CCH Inc., a consulting firm in Riverwoods, IL, that specializes in employment law. Rosen calls the problem "presenteeism" and advises you to combat it just as much as absenteeism.

Employers say presenteeism is a problem

According to the findings of the 2004 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, 39% of employers surveyed report presenteeism is a problem in their organization. Presenteeism is a problem for employers not only because of employees’ lowered productivity, but issues of contagion to an otherwise healthy work force. Organizations that have low employee morale are at even greater risk of sick workers on the job, with 52% of companies with poor or fair morale reporting presenteeism is a problem.

"With a serious flu season looming, the idea of the hero worker that manages to punch in for a full day’s work, despite illness, needs to be discouraged," Rosen says. "Being in contact with contagious individuals jeopardizes the health and productivity of all employees. Employers need to emphasize to employees that while they need them at work, they first want a healthy workplace."

Don’t encourage martyrs 

Some traditional absence control and sick-day policies may inadvertently encourage employee presenteeism, Rosen notes. Organizations that adhere to traditional sick day policies and take disciplinary action to enforce them may make it difficult for employees to do the right thing. "For example, in an organization that allots each employee five sick days a year, and takes disciplinary action on the sixth absence, an employee who has been wiped out with the flu for several days may choose to come to work ill rather than risk the discipline," she says. "This is especially true at the beginning of the year, when employees are concerned about depleting all of their allowed leave in just a month or two. Unfortunately, that time also is the height of flu season."

Set a good example

Rosen offers these suggestions for how risk managers can minimize the impact of flu season:

  • Foster a healthy environment. Speak with managers to ensure they’re fostering an environment that makes ill employees comfortable to ask to leave the workplace or, better yet, not report to work in the first place.
  • Set a good example. Managers should be urged not to show up at the workplace with the flu as employees may otherwise simply view the message to stay home as lip service.
  • Set guidelines and make them visible to employees. Help them understand under what conditions they should stay home and when it’s safe to return to work.
  • Review absence control policies to ensure they are not counterproductive. Programs such as disciplinary action need to be assessed to ensure they are not making ill employees feel required to report to work.
  • Post helpful tips on how to avoid spreading germs. Guidance is available at www.cdc.gov/flu/keyfacts.htm#goodhabits.
  • Work with your employees and facilities department to keep common areas clean. Make sure that common areas of the facilities are cleaned regularly. This may even include cleaning conference rooms between meetings.