Time to break out the hand sanitizer: Flu and cold season is here.
Think you’ll be safe this year? Here’s an unfortunate statistic: As many as 90% of American workers report going to work when sick, according to a recent survey of 2,800 people that staffing firm Accountemps conducted in 28 U.S. cities. And a third of them said they always report to work when sick.
That’s not a good thing, given that colds and flu spread quickly in the close quarters that many office environments provide.
A flu epidemic is also about the last thing a tax firm wants to have hit in February, when busy season is well underway. Unfortunately, that’s when flu cases have historically peaked, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which keeps close track of the highly contagious — and sometimes deadly — virus.
Beyond the personal discomfort that a bout with a nasty cold or the flu can bring, having a workplace where people regularly bring in their contagions to share can slow down productivity if illness spreads, said Mike Steinitz, senior executive director for Accountemps.
“The person that is coming in sick, they’re trying to be unselfish and want to hold up their end of the duties at the company,” Steinitz said. “In reality, they’re actually doing a disservice to the company.”
Steinitz said he was surprised at how many people self-reported coming to work sick, given that the overall strength of the job market has meant people are looking for workplaces that are understanding of their needs, including time off when sick.
“In today’s work environment companies are under more and more pressure to make their place a really good place to work,” he said. And one piece of that is having a solid policy on sick time.
Why are people coming to work sick? The Accountemps survey, which permitted respondents to select multiple reasons, found it was largely because people felt they had too much work to do (54%). Not wanting to use a sick day (40%) and pressure from employers to show up (34%) were also top reasons chosen.
Want to encourage a healthier workplace? Here’s some advice on how to encourage people to make their health, and the health of their colleagues, a priority:
Set an example. People take their cues from what office leaders do, so partners, managers, and supervisors should be transparent and clear that when they are feeling under the weather, they stay home, Steinitz said.
(Politely) ask people to go home. If you see an associate going through boxes of tissues, or groggy from a head cold, encourage them to take a sick day or, at the very least, work from home. People need to hear that it's OK to take time to recuperate and be given support to work around deadlines, Steinitz said.
Don’t be stingy with sick time. Make sure your firm or company is competitive with its offerings on sick or flex time, so that staff know they can stay home with a sick child or stay in bed themselves when under the weather, Steinitz said.
Encourage prevention. Help staff boost their health by encouraging flu shots, whether by bringing in a local pharmacist to offer shots at the office in the early fall or promoting some other type of incentive to encourage people to get vaccinated. Some workplaces offer financial incentives — gift cards, for example — knowing that the cost is small when compared to the havoc a flu outbreak can wreak on office productivity.
Have backup plans in place. If the person who keeps the office running is out sick, make sure you have a process ahead of time so that others know how to take care of things in their absence, Steinitz said. And make sure you have a system in place for other accountants in your office to take over a fellow CPA's workload if they unexpectedly are out for a week battling the flu.
You can’t guard completely against illnesses, but you can minimize suffering in the workplace if you cover your cough, wash your hands, and ensure everyone in your office knows it’s not just OK but preferable to stay home when sick.