Got the Flu? Don’t Be a Superhero―Stay Home!

Workers report taking an average of 2.7 sick days with the flu, which is not enough time to recover

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie November 19, 2018
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​That colleague in the cubicle next to yours is clearly miserable: He's sneezing and coughing, you hear an occasional moan, and used tissues are piling up next to his computer.

He has the flu, he explains. But he came to work, he admits, because there's just too much to do.

Unmanageable workloads are among the reasons that employees—even if they have paid sick leave—show up at work when plagued with the flu, health experts say. And that means every time these employees touch the copy machine, an elevator button, a door handle or the watercooler, they're exposing the rest of their colleagues to the same misery.

When employees are sick, "odds are they feel pressured to come to work," said Alan Kohll, founder and CEO of TotalWellness, a national wellness services provider. "They don't want to miss out, get behind or appear weak. Also, when managers shame employees for taking sick days—whether intentionally or not—they are piling on the pressure for them to show up when they feel ill."

Flu by the Numbers

Last year's flu season was severe, with a record-breaking number of cases reported, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC projects that this year's flu season will be even worse.

A recent survey by Walgreens, the drugstore chain, found that nearly 40 percent of respondents reported going to work when sick with the flu, and 1 in 10 reported attending a party or social gathering. The survey didn't ask those who went to work with the flu if they did so because they worked in an industry—such as retail, hospitality or food service—where they may not have had paid sick leave. But health experts said that could be among the reasons.

Another recent survey conducted by Staples Business Advantage (SBA), an arm of the office-supply chain, found that of the respondents who reported contracting the flu last year, 45 percent blamed their illness on colleagues who came to work with the flu. 

'Desks and cubicles are hot spots for germs to fester and multiply. Copiers, water fountains and break areas can be covered with germs and bacteria as well.'

Employees who had the flu last year took an average of just 2.7 sick days, SBA found. "This means many returned to work when they were at peak contagiousness," states an SBA press release. "More than 50 percent of respondents said they came back to work before they felt better."

"I think it is cultural—people are worried they will be seen negatively if they don't come in even when sick, or that they get 'extra credit' if they do," said Derek van Amerongen, chief wellness officer at HumanaVitality, a Chicago-based wellness program sponsored by health insurance company Humana.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Through Flu and Other Epidemics in the Workplace]

Flu Shot … or Not?

Health experts agree that perhaps the best way to prevent people from getting the flu in the first place is to encourage them to get influenza vaccines. Yet more than half—53 percent—of all those in the U.S., including children and people without jobs, don't get the flu shot, according to the CDC. 

"We are seeing a rise in people opposed to all vaccines," van Amerongen said. "We forgot the lessons of the horrible [global] flu epidemic of 1918 to 1919 that killed 20 million, including 600,000 in the U.S. We did see an increase in deaths [from the flu in 2017] … and probably the biggest factor was and is the low rate of immunization."

Kohll said he's heard every excuse in the book for skipping the flu shot. Among them:

  • There are too many serious side effects from the flu shot.
  • You can get the flu from the flu shot.
  • I don't need to get the flu shot every year.
  • I'm really healthy and don't need it.
  • Getting the flu isn't a big deal, so I don't really need the shot.
  • The flu shot isn't very effective. 

"Many employees have their doubts about flu shots simply because they are misinformed," Kohll said. "There have been many false accusations about influenza and the flu vaccine throughout the years. Anyone can hop online and find [information] to support a specific argument. Unfortunately, those resources aren't always credible, which lends to the mass amount of misinformation about the flu shot. It's essential to accurately educate employees about getting vaccinated."

Ann Marie Zaletel, a partner with Seyfarth Shaw LLP in Los Angeles, said it's a good idea to educate workers about what she called "flu shot myths."

For instance, workers need to know that getting the flu shot is important even when the season's flu shot is not considered particularly effective. The flu vaccine doesn't offer complete protection; the CDC estimates that the vaccine reduces the risk of getting the virus by about 40 percent to 60 percent. Still, if one does contract the flu after getting a flu shot, it will likely be a milder case, the CDC reports.

There will still be those who come to work with the flu. To help prevent the spread of germs, health experts suggest distributing hand sanitizer to each employee, posting signs in break rooms and restrooms that encourage frequent hand-washing, encouraging employees to keep work spaces clean, and even reminding workers to use tissues or disinfecting wipes when touching shared objects such as telephones, elevator buttons, doorknobs, sink faucet handles and the like.

"Desks and cubicles are [also] hot spots for germs to fester and multiply," van Amerongen said. "Copiers, water fountains and break areas can be covered with germs and bacteria as well."

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