Flu Season Is Here: Tips to Minimize Its Impact on Your Office

Flu season is peaking early this year, with many already sick. Ensuring employees understand office sick leave policies and thinking creatively can keep ill staffers at home, healthy workers safe, and your association running smoothly.

While flu season typically peaks in February, this year it’s already been bad, and many are grappling with the common cold. There may even be someone in your office coughing right now. With workers breathing communal air, it’s a good time to look at policies that can help keep your office as healthy as possible during the cold and flu season.

Mary Ellen Brennan, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, founder of MEBrennan Consulting, said association policies can influence behavior that optimizes employee health.

While usually done earlier in the season, even at this late date, offering employees a free flu shot helps. “Employees appreciate having that ability to get the flu shot and not have to pay $30 for it,” Brennan said.

Employers can also provide some basic education about reducing flu spread. “In the past, when there were really bad flu outbreaks, we would post reminders about handwashing and things like that,” Brennan said.

In addition, organizations should take a moment to help employees take stock of their leave. “It’s a good idea to let people know what their balances are,” Brennan said. “Most employers have a self-service arrangement, but not everyone knows how to use it. They can also be reminded of the kinds of things they can use their leave for.”

Brennan said it is best when sick leave is separate from vacation. When it’s all in one pot, say of paid time off (PTO), employees are more apt to come in sick. “People have a hard time using their hard-earned PTO,” Brennan said, noting they view taking a sick day now as losing a vacation day in the future.

If employees are reluctant to take leave, approach solutions creatively. For example, if someone is coughing a lot—which may be contagious and disruptive, but not preventing them from working—consider allowing unscheduled remote work.

“As long as it’s not abused, it’s a great time to suggest telework,” Brennan said. “But there are also times you have to suggest that people not work. An employee’s health is the number-one priority.”

People who are sick but don’t have leave often must take leave without pay. Creative workarounds for this include advanced leave—where an employee goes negative—or making up time later in the pay period. “You have to look at it case-by-case,” Brennan said. “You also have to look at whether the employee is exempt or nonexempt before you propose the ability to make up time.”

Office Culture Matters

In addition to policies, it’s important to create an office culture where people feel it’s OK to take off for sickness. “What management does, what coworkers do, is all part of the unwritten behavior in an office that we call culture,” Brennan said. “It is really important to work with managers and senior leaders to show it is important to stay out of the workplace when you’re sick, especially with something communicable.”

Beyond management pressures, employees sometimes put pressure on themselves, afraid of being swamped after an absence. “People feel their work will fall behind,” Brennan said. “In associations, a lot of times you have one person [doing a job duty]. It helps to cross train people, so that if there is some type of catastrophic event, the work can still get done.”

Relaying that some work can be handled by others if employees are sick can go a long way. Managers also should convey that they care. “It’s important to say, ‘We know you’re trying to do the best job,’” Brennan said. “I think people worry about, ‘How is this going to look?’ Especially if they’re a new employee. Let people know, ‘These things happen. You can still come out looking strong and having a strong performance record.’”

Even with good leave policies and culture, people will sometimes come in sick. So, what should a manager do when there’s nonstop coughing or sniffles? Talk to the person.

“There are no reasons you can’t engage in a conversation with them about whether it’s good for them to remain at work, or whether they’re ill,” Brennan said. “I wouldn’t hesitate in letting them know, ‘It’s difficult for your coworkers to work when you’re coughing and sneezing.’ A lot of times, they’re relieved that they don’t have to make the decision or approach their own manager about going home.”

What policies does your association employ to help people keep the office healthy this time of year? Share in the comments.

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Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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