Balancing Act: Should sick workers stay home?

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After four days in bed with the flu, Cindy Papale returned to her office only to have a colleague come in sniffling and coughing, touching common surfaces and spreading germs. Within a few days, Ms. Papale was out again with a fever. "If people would stay home, then the rest of us might not get sick, too," she said.

Flu season is here with a vengeance, and it can be tough on the workplace, creating resentment among co-workers, testing flexibility policies and putting the boss in awkward situations. Whether motivated by fear of losing their jobs, a desire to look responsible, a need for income or reluctance to give up vacation days, employees inevitably come to work sick. Some even put up a fight when colleagues or a boss suggests they go home.

For businesses, a single flu-struck worker can have a domino effect. According to a new survey from the office supply company Staples, nearly 90 percent of office workers come to work even when they know they are sick. The California-based Disability Management Employer Coalition estimates that employees who come to work with the flu increase lost workdays by 10 percent to 30 percent.

Still, some workplaces seem blind to the potential cost. One nonprofit employee complained that in her workplace, if you call in sick, the boss treats you like you're a slacker and even compliments the work ethic of those who come to the workplace sniffling. Others say they are given a cold shoulder by fellow workers when they ask to work from home.

Office manager Rosie Toledo doesn't agree with that line of thinking at all. "You have to think about the whole office," she said. Ms. Toledo, who manages a Miami medical office, said she has no qualms about telling sick employees not to come in.

Some businesses try to curb flu outbreaks in their workplaces by administering vaccines. Others rely on an effective leave policy and encourage workers to step up hygiene efforts.

Mr. Elliott said he has seen a definite return on investment, in terms of lessened absenteeism, for employers that offer flu shots. "It's a proactive approach."

In the workplace, flu viruses can survive on hard surfaces, such as keyboards and desks, for up to 48 hours. But the most common way flu virus is spread in offices is through person-to-person contact and via the air from coughing, said Giorgio Tarchini, an infectious disease doctor with Cleveland Clinic in Weston, Fla.

Often, he notes, people go back to work too soon. "They should wait 24 hours with no symptoms," he said.


Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC; balancegal@gmail.com.

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