When the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) online news team first began reporting on the H1N1 flu outbreak in Mexico in April 2009—then called swine flu—I immediately took steps to prepare myself. At work I washed my hands longer than usual, used paper towels to open doors and learned how to cough into my elbow. At home I stocked up on soup, juice and sports drinks and reminded my daughters to wash their hands regularly.
SHRM prepared by distributing hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and a revised employee policy that reinforced the expectation that employees stay home when sick.
But all the hand washing, hand sanitizing and “social distancing” didn’t help. H1N1 struck anyway.
On Oct. 22, 2009, I returned from the SHRM Diversity Conference to find that my 14-year-old daughter had a fever. She hadn’t felt well the day before, apparently, but didn’t tell anyone and went to school anyway. A neighbor saw her dragging herself home from the bus stop.
How many others had she infected by going to school that day?
For the next nine days I ran up and down the stairs between my laptop and her room, taking her temperature and giving her drinks, cough drops and new movies for her mini-DVD player. After each visit to her room, and any contact with anything she touched, I scrubbed my hands thoroughly.
Meanwhile, I worked on my laptop using a borrowed wireless card, which gave me access to everything I needed at work.
By Halloween she had recovered fully, and I convinced myself that the rest of the family had been spared. Surely I would have caught the illness by now—I thought—if I were going to do so.
The first week of November I was back at my desk and worked hard to get caught up. But on Friday of that week I started coughing, enough so that my boss reminded me that SHRM policy requires me to stay home if sick. I promised to do so if I didn’t feel well on Monday.
Though my cough persisted through the weekend I kept up my regular activities, including church (though I avoided touching anyone’s hands, just in case).
At about 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2009, I felt chilled, took my temperature and discovered I had a fever. Stupidly, I did not run off to an urgent care center to get the antiviral Tamiflu, which can lessen the severity of flu symptoms. In retrospect I wish I had, but I simply didn’t think of it as I huddled in my recliner wrapped up in a fleece blanket waiting for the ibuprofen to take effect and wondering how many people I had infected at church.
I’ve had the flu before; just once as an adult, thanks to the availability of an annual flu shot at SHRM. I remember having a very high fever and sleeping constantly. And I remember feeling better after about four days. But that’s not how this illness works. The fever seems to hang on forever—about a week—and is determined enough to require a lot of fever-reducing medicine to keep it under control. When the fever spikes it brings chills and severe aches, which make it difficult to do anything but huddle miserably in a little ball.
But the worst part is the cough, which made it hard to sleep or lie down even when using over-the-counter cough remedies. My recliner became my best friend that week: the place I retreated to at 2 a.m. when the coughing overtook me. I can understand how anyone with underlying medical conditions would be in serious danger with this illness. The cough is violent and continuous, and in my case it needed prescription medicine to finally keep it under control.
Working Through H1N1
The availability of technology—web-based e-mail, a laptop and wireless card—made it possible for me to work from home while caring for my daughter. Though my attentions were divided, I was able to keep at least a minimum level of productivity for the six days spent in the caregiver role.
But when it came to my own illness I was too debilitated to even attempt to work after the first day. That doesn’t mean I didn’t try. I spent a couple of hours slowly and painfully piecing together a monthly electronic newsletter. But then I realized I was going to need to rely on others to cover for me and so turned the process over to a colleague. Fortunately, we all know how to do each other’s jobs so we can cover for each other readily.
However, there are plenty of employees who don’t have the kinds of jobs where others can fill in easily. That’s why each organization must ask themselves how they will keep their business going if each of their employees is out for more than a week, whether it is for their own illness or for that of a family member.
SHRM policy required me to stay home throughout my illness. This requirement was reinforced several times by our HR staff and by my supervisor, who insisted I remain at home until I had recovered fully. I found myself feeling tremendous gratitude to SHRM several times during my absence. Among the things I was grateful for:
My laptop and the loaner wireless card.
My accumulated sick leave, which prevented me from losing income while sick.
My co-workers and boss, who said they would handle things for me and not to worry.
My health insurance.
My HR department, which had given every employee a home health care book, which I referred to regularly.
I do have some catching up to do now that I’m back at work but that’s okay. My daughter and I survived H1N1: she didn’t flunk out of school, and SHRM got along without me.
Every workplace is undoubtedly experiencing situations just like this as the virus marches on. Anything that can be done to spare even one person from the ravages of this illness is worth it.
Make sick employees stay home.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.