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Combating cold and flu season at the office

Employees often come to work when they shouldn’t, putting co-workers and customers at risk of getting ill and affecting overall company productivity. What can you do?

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By the end of a football season, it’s not uncommon to hear coaches say everyone on the roster is playing hurt. The message is clear: injuries aren’t going to be an excuse.

In the middle of winter, it’s also not uncommon to hear everyone around the office sniffling, sneezing, coughing, and hacking. People come to work sick even when they’ve been told not to, and “I’m not going to let a little cold get in the way …” is a frequent refrain. That’s admirable, but why?

One of the biggest challenges with cold and flu season is that employees continually come into the office when they’re sick, notes Sasha Truckenbrod, branch manager of OfficeTeam in Madison. According to an OfficeTeam survey, even though 82% of human resources managers have encouraged staff to stay home when they’re sick, 85% of employees come into the office anyway. Other highlights:

  • 36% of those who showed up to work while ill did so because they felt well enough to do their jobs; another 32% didn’t want to fall behind on assignments.
  • 42% of employees said their biggest pet peeve during cold and flu season is when someone comes in sick.
  • Another 42% are most annoyed when those around them don’t cover their mouth when sneezing or coughing.

“Most people are well intentioned,” Truckenbrod says. “They come in even when they aren’t feeling well because they don’t want to fall behind in their work or burden colleagues who cover for them. However, they risk spreading their illness to others and affecting the entire team. Employers should encourage staff to stay home if they are under the weather and provide tips on what employees can do to prevent the spread of illness in general.”

Some obvious drawbacks to coming into work sick include inadvertently getting colleagues ill, being less productive, and delaying your recovery time, further impacting your team or department’s productivity.

Of course, a major caveat to actually getting employees to stay home sick is workers with enough paid sick time. Often, workers who should stay home don’t because they don’t have any or enough paid time off.

According to an article from, health-policy advocates point out that Americans often have close direct contact with those sick workers who are least likely to get paid sick leave. That includes restaurant workers (just 24%) and retail workers (47%), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Calling in sick for these workers often means losing a day of wages, or even risking being fired.

“Showing up sick and underperforming at work, or even damaging equipment or products because of diminished capacity or the effects of medication, is known as presenteeism in HR-parlance,” notes Marketplace. “The Centers for Disease Control reports lost productivity from illness costs employers $225 billion annually; and it cites data from the Harvard Business Review that the cost of presenteeism is $150 billion or higher.”

Workers at the top of the income scale, such as managers and other professionals, are most likely to receive paid sick leave, notes Marketplace. The rate is 84% among the top quartile of income-earners whereas just 30% of earners in the bottom quartile get paid sick time.

While some jobs or work tasks cannot be performed remotely, many others can. When workers say they’re not so sick that they can’t still perform their jobs, they may be right. The best course of action, however, would be for managers to encourage employees to work from home whenever possible. This can obviously allow workers to retain sick days that might be in short supply for times they are unable to work. It’s also best achieved when managers model this behavior themselves.


Jan 22, 2018 08:47 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Interesting points ... one issue is that most illness last about a week - people don't want to or can't take seven days off to recover and not spread germs. I also know of a retail company here in Madison that provides zero sick days for their customer service people - which means infected employees work AND spread the illness not only to fellow workers, but the company's customers! There are establishments that need to seriously reconsider their benefits policies and expectations of their employees.

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