One Flu Over The Employer’s Nest

Ah…..Ah…..Ah…..choooo! So it begins. Sniffles and a scratchy throat. You feel like you’re burning up, and then the fever breaks and you start to shiver. Your muscles ache. You have the flu.

You want to burrow under the covers with a quilt pulled up to your chin. Instead, you chauffer the kids, running errands in between pick-ups and drop-offs. Staying at home, in bed, isn’t an option. Your sick days went to taking care of ailing children. Missing work means losing vacation days to the flu.

Sullen, achy and miserable, you drag into work. Maybe you can close your office door, turn off the phone, tell your assistant you don’t want to be disturbed, and put your head down on your desk. If don’t have an office, you tough it out, trying valiantly to concentrate.

Ah, the flu, a malady that strikes nearly 20 percent of Americans each year. To employers, this means absenteeism and lower productivity. Think of the havoc this causes for staffing, maintaining customer service, and meeting deadlines.

The average worker misses up to 1.5 days a year because of the flu, says David Cutler, a health economist at Harvard. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that healthy workers who had been vaccinated against the flu reported 43 percent fewer sick days and 44 percent fewer doctor visits as a result of upper-respiratory illnesses. That is until this year. As a result of the flu vaccine shortage, that absenteeism rates could double.

What this means to employers is that yet another front is converging on the workplace, making The Perfect Labor Storm even more imminent. First, the number of sick employees will increase dramatically. Absenteeism merges with presenteeism – the problem of workers being on the job, but not fully productive. Swirling around this lost productivity are rising health care costs resulting from flu-related medical claims. The final blow comes from the family factor – parents miss work when kids are sick.

This isn’t conjecture. In an average year when nearly 90 million people receive a flu shot, influenza kills 36,000 Americans and puts more than 200,000 in hospitals for prolonged stays. This year less than 54 million people will receive a flu shot and that doesn’t include many workers who fall in the lower risk age groups but are just as susceptible.

More people will get sick as the resources to cope with the flu dwindle. Health care workers are at risk due to their constant exposure to infected patients. Already, hospitals have contingency plans to shut down elective services and house patients in the corridors in the event staffing falls below demand for service.

The U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that approximately four-fifths of mothers with school-age children and 51 percent of mothers with infants are in the paid workforce. Daycare centers turn away sick youngsters during flu season. That means working parents leave their jobs to take sick kids home. That’s where they stay until symptoms go away.

There’s more. Although many healthy employees rise to the challenge, there is always a sub-group of “me first” workers. You know them. They are the people who stay home when co-workers are ill. There is no way ailing colleagues will screw up their social lives. Even when everyone does show up, the healthy employee is pondering how to stay well and the sick co-worker is figuring out how to go home. By the end of the day, more time was invested in damage control than productivity.

All told, flu-related medical costs and work days could cost the economy as much as $20 billion this year. That is not necessarily what employers like you who run “lean and mean” operations want to hear.

Although it seems counter-intuitive, experts encourage sick employees to stay home. That’s a change from the time-honored thinking that the ultimate loyal employee never misses a work day. Today, the employee who comes in sick and lethargic, spreading germs with every sneeze and sniffle should be the goat, not the hero.

Apparently no one told this to the workers. Nearly 90 percent of workers responding to a recent LifeCare poll admitted to coming in to work while sick. Why? Twenty seven percent show up out of obligation and twenty-four percent feel it’s “too risky” to be absent.

Obviously, employers haven’t gotten the message either. Company policies are out of sync with current knowledge about employee productivity. More than 91 percent of companies surveyed had disciplinary policies for using too many sick days. Forty percent of hourly workers have no sick day benefits. With so many people living from paycheck to paycheck, staying home because of the flu is not likely to happen. Management takes some responsibility for the rash of presenteesim. As one manager told me, “I expect my employees to get their butts out of bed and get in here.”

What can an employer do to prevent the flu from wiping out employee ranks? Re-think your sick pay policy. Both absenteeism and presenteeism cost an employer. Understand the impact of each on productivity and decide if is better for sick workers to come to work or to stay home? Think long-term effects, including the impact on the cost of health care. If you choose to protect the healthy worker and maintain productivity, make sure your sick day benefits don’t encourage workers to come to work sick. The hero worker who manages to punch in for a full day’s work, despite illness, needs to be discouraged from coming in at all costs.

Encourage all employees to practice good hygiene (See “Coping with the Flu.”). Promote hand washing, discourage contact with sick workers, and keep doorknobs, desks, phones, keyboards, and computer and office machines clean with disinfectant wipes. University of Arizona researchers tracked disease-causing bacteria and germs in the office and found that there are 400 times more germs present at a workplace desk than on a toilet seat in the bathroom down the hall. A little prevention and proactive strategy could maintain a productive workforce along with a healthy bottom line.

Jac Fitz-enz, universally acknowledged as the father of human capital benchmarking, began his session at the HR Technology Conference and Exposition just a few weeks ago by pulling a pen from his coat pocket and holding it up so everyone in the standing-room-only audience could see. “Here’s a piece of equipment,” he said. “Let’s watch it add value.” He stood for a moment holding the pen as the silent room watched. “Nothing’s happening,” he said. “That’s because it can only add value when somebody who knows how to use it properly picks it up and uses it.”

Fitz-enz used the example to underline what he says top-level management is finally coming to understand: Human capital, expertly aligned to the business through careful deployment of workforce analytics, is the greatest “value-add” of all.

While Success Performance Solutions can’t help irradicate the flu, we do help businesses and organizations identify the right benefits and value-added incentives to help recruit the best employees and retain them.


Ira S Wolfe