Every worker has been there. Before you open your eyes, you know you’re sick. Your head is pounding, your nose is stuffed, and every muscle in your body aches. You think you have a fever and even suspect the flu. But you’re a dedicated employee, so you tough it out and head in to the office--after all, you’ve got work to do, and you don’t want to leave your colleagues in the lurch. However well intentioned, this is a huge mistake.When it comes to the workplace, the office environment is the ideal conduit for germs to spread, even when only a single person is sick. Consider a study performed by researchers at the University of Arizona which tracked the progress of mock viruses from one individual in an office setting. The results of the study showed that in just four hours of routine office activity, half of all commonly touched surfaces and half of employees were infected with at least one of the viruses. The study noted that germ hotspots included places such as doorknobs, copy machine buttons, desktops, tabletops, telephones, and spots in the break room such as the office refrigerator and coffee pot handle.
Happily, with simple interventions, the risk of infection dropped to below ten percent. These interventions included providing employees with tissues, disinfecting wipes, and a bottle of hand sanitizer, as well as encouraging them to wash their hands before eating lunch and after meeting with a large number of people. The researchers also emphasized the importance of employees staying home while sick to prevent introducing germs into the office in the first place.
These recommendations echo the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for preventing the spread of disease such as influenza, RSV, whooping cough, and other communicable infections. Best health practices include avoiding contact with sick people; staying home when sick, and encouraging employees to do so; covering coughs and sneezes; proper hand-washing hygiene; and disinfecting common surfaces.
As an employer or manager, you play an important role in encouraging your employees to adhere to these guidelines. You can reinforce good habits by prominently posting the CDC guidelines in common areas; providing supplies such as tissues, disinfecting wipes; and hand sanitizer; and even offering free or low-cost flu shots for those employees who wish to get vaccinated. Finally, encourage sick employees to remain at home until they are symptom free for at least 24 hours.
Keep in mind that many states and cities may require employers to provide a certain amount of sick leave, either with or without pay, to their employees. Be sure that your sick leave policy complies with any applicable state or federal laws and is clear in specifying the eligibility rules, whether sick leave is paid or not, how many days are provided each year, and any carryover provisions. Regardless of what is required and what you decide with your sick leave policy, you should include the policy in your employee handbook if you distribute one.
Remember: while it may be tempting to allow a sick employee to come to work in the name of productivity, an outbreak of influenza or other communicable disease can thwart the productivity of your entire workforce for days or even weeks--and that’s a cost no business can afford. To learn more about HR and benefits issues, and to download sample policies and a model employee handbook, visit HR360.com.