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Preventing and Managing Illness in the Workplace

In the midst of cold and flu season, along with recent concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, the issue of preventing illness in the workplace may be top of mind right now.
An employee sick at work

In the midst of cold and flu season, along with recent concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, the issue of preventing illness in the workplace may be top of mind right now. Dealing with a workforce hit hard by viral illnesses can leave companies scrambling if their plans are outdated or haven’t been reviewed in a while. Learn more about how businesses can prevent the spread of illness in the workplace, as well as adapt and keep operations running when employees are out sick.

Tips for maintaining a healthy work environment

What can you do to prevent illness in the workplace? With different strains of active viruses circulating through the air this time of year, common sense can go a long way. By taking measures to prevent the spread of germs, as well as implementing a policy that supports sick staff members, you can help address employee health during cold and flu season.

Communicate and raise awareness

Before peak cold and flu season starts, companies should aim to communicate information about available immunizations, best-practice reminders, and other useful resources. Some companies may consider hosting an in-house immunization clinic or sponsoring an onsite health fair focusing on proper office hygiene and best practices. If this isn’t feasible, you can disseminate information about community-run clinics to ensure that flu vaccines are available to those who would like them.

Educate employees and refer to trusted sources

Beyond vaccines, educating employees on health-related issues can pay off in the long run. Most recently, your staff may be expressing concern over the coronavirus outbreak. While there’s a great deal of information and speculation circulating, trusted sources such as the CDC can help you and your employees find the most up-to-date facts and information.

Keep supplies on hand to develop healthy habits

A minimal investment to keep hand sanitizers, antibacterial soap and disinfecting agents, and tissues can pay dividends by improving employee health. Encourage employees to focus on cleaning surfaces most easily infected with cold and flu germs — their office telephone, computer keyboard and mouse, and other frequently touched surfaces. They should also avoid close contact with others who show symptoms.

Encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick

In some workplaces, employees may fear the repercussions of missing too much time from work when they're not feeling well. They may force themselves to come into the office rather than stay home. However, even one or two employees who come to work while sick can lead to serious productivity and efficiency issues.

The same can be said for managers and business owners. Telling sick employees that you prefer they stay home will carry little value if you’re unwell but still coming into the office. Don’t let a misguided sense of obligation lead you to set the wrong example by showing up to work sick while urging others to act differently.

If necessary, encourage employees at all levels who are sick to stay home from work.

During any infectious disease outbreak, employers should continue to be mindful of their obligations under federal, state, and local laws against harassment and discrimination based on national origin, ethnicity, race, and other protected factors.

Employers also can’t ask employees about a specific diagnosis, as that is confidential medical information the employee is not required to disclose. However, during a pandemic, an employer’s ability to ask questions may change. According to EEOC guidance, during a pandemic, an employer may ask if a worker has flu-like symptoms.

You may see the benefit of a more lenient remote work policy on a short-term basis. Of course, you’ll need to evaluate this on a case-by-case basis, since some job functions are more conducive to remote work than others. For instance, manufacturing and retail industry employees may not be able to complete their work outside of a plant or store location, whereas a graphic designer or law clerk may be able to complete most or all of their duties outside of the office.

In a Paychex poll of 300 randomly selected U.S. business owners, conducted Feb. 28 to March 1, 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, 54 percent responded they could accommodate work from home or remote work if a quarantine were to go into effect. However, there were variances by industry, with 65% of manufacturing businesses saying they could not accommodate remote work or work from home.

Review your time and attendance policies

Beyond remote work setups, this may be an opportune time to review your business’s time and attendance policies, including paid time off and sick leave for employees. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is also recommending that employers develop workplace and leave policies as the coronavirus continues to spread.

Before making any changes to your policies, you may first want to review employees’ rights to paid leave under state and local paid sick leave laws as well as paid family and medical leave programs and short-term disability insurance. If you’re uncertain about the requirements that apply to your business, you may want to work with an experienced HR professional.

Employee handbooks that reflect workplace illness policies

Once you’ve made decisions around remote work setup, PTO, and sick leave policies, consider whether this is reflected in your employee handbook. Although it’s not always required by law, this communication tool could:

  • Address employee rights under applicable local, state, and federal laws and regulations;
  • Meet specific notice requirements under certain laws
  • Can serve as a line of defense against legal actions brought against the business by an employee or a former employee;
  • Helps consistently communicate company expectations to employees; and
  • Can help you worry less about issues that come up that could negatively impact business operations.

If you decide to make any changes to your policies based on severe illness, infectious disease outbreak, or any another factor, be sure to update your handbook to reflect the changes. In general, this document can help regularly remind employees that the handbook is not a list of rules, but is a tool for them to better understand their rights and benefits as well as the company's policies.

How to manage a sick workforce and manage employee absenteeism

Employees will inevitably be sick at some point, but preparedness is key and HR policies should be drawn up in advance. When the flu or other illness does hit, a well-thought-out plan can be put in place to help maintain company productivity and keep everyone as healthy as possible. Consider reviewing your company’s remote work and leave policies, and make adjustments as needed. Professionals who are experienced in HR policies and employment-related matters can help you navigate this process.

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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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