When Managers Won’t Walk the Talk During Flu Season

Failing to set a good example may encourage employees to come to work sick

By Dana Wilkie Oct 23, 2015
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Maybe this happens each winter: You, as an HR manager, post the requisite reminders for employees to get flu shots. You arrange vaccination clinics, remind workers to wash their hands routinely, place hand sanitizer around the workplace and tell employees to stay home when they fall ill. 

Only many workers never heed your advice. 

And that may partly be the fault of your company’s managers, workplace health experts say.

“Some [employees] believe that they will be seen as not dedicated if they take off work for every cold or stomach virus,” said Edward Yost, SHRM-SCP, an HR business partner and employee relations expert at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “This mentality is typically fostered by the way managers talk about other employees who take time off when they’re sick, or the guilt laid on employees for not being at work due to illness. If an employee is made to feel guilty about legitimately using their sick time, they will think twice [about staying home] the next time they’re feeling under the weather.”

In the United States, flu outbreaks can happen as early as October and as late as May. This year, the official flu season began Oct. 4. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so far reports sporadic influenza activity in 27 states and Puerto Rico.

Walk the Talk

Managers may think they’re setting a good example when they encourage flu vaccines, give workers time off to get their shots, buy hand sanitizer and tissues for common use, post “wash your hands” signs around the workplace, and send reminders that sick workers should stay home out of consideration for their fellow employees. 

But whether subtly or overtly, sometimes these same managers send the message that workers who take sick days lack dedication, aren’t very “tough,” are faking their illnesses or get sick too often. 

“First, if they make the employee feel guilty about using the time, either by their words or the way they treat them upon their return, the employee will be less likely to call out,” Yost said. “Second, if they make offhanded comments about other employees—‘Can you believe Mary called out again today?’—that will also impact how willing employees are to call out” sick.

And managers who themselves come into work when they’ree sick send the message that—no matter what they tell others about staying home when ill—the really important and dedicated people tough it out and come to work. 

“Just as we need to let people know that staying home when ill is the best decision, we also need managers to believe this as well,” said Derek van Amerongen, vice president and medical officer for Humana of Ohio. “Too many managers send the message, perhaps even subconsciously, that taking sick time is a negative sign. It can start with managers staying home when sick and letting their associates know it.” 

Are You Really Indispensable?

It’s not only managers who may be putting pressure on sick employees to show up to work; employees put that pressure on themselves, too. 

“For some people it is a matter of pride,” Yost said. “They have the mindset that if they can stand erect, they can make it to work. So they do believe that they are indispensable to the business.”

Said van Amerongen: “We have created a mindset in the U.S. that we are less devoted to our jobs if we don’t come in—regardless of illness, weather or other issues. While to many this may look like dedication … coming to work when one is sick and potentially able to infect others does nothing to improve workplace productivity and actually decreases it if it takes others off-task.”

Besides setting a good example, managers can spell out the benefits of getting a flu vaccine, and arrange for at-work vaccination clinics. 

According to SHRM’s 2015 Employee Benefits Survey, 61 percent of employers offer onsite seasonal flu vaccinations, a statistic that has held steady over the past five years. 

Bruce Elliott, CCP, CBP, SHRM-SCP, SHRM’s manager of compensation and benefits, said it makes a lot of financial sense for employers to offer flu shots. 

“When you consider the flu shot costs about $25, and the average hourly wage among private employers is $25.01 an hour, [then] saving one hour of sick time pays for the shot,” Elliott said. “Save a day, and you offset the cost of eight inoculations. Multiply that by the number of employees that have taken a vaccination, and it turns into a real return on investment in terms of recouping potential lost [work] time.” 

Managers also need to be firm about sending obviously sick employees home. 

“A manager who observes an employee who is coughing and sneezing all over the office should certainly pull the employee aside and suggest they go home,” Yost said. “The manager can certainly acknowledge the employee’s dedication, but also state that he would prefer the employee be functioning at 100 percent rather than at 50 percent.” 

Aside from the standard workplace precautions for preventing the spread of illness—flu shots, hand washing, staying home—van Amerongen and Yost said managers should also: 

  • Place hand sanitizer and tissues throughout the workplace. 
  • Advise workers to keep their hands away from their mouths, eyes and noses.
  • Remind workers of the importance of staying physically active, eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, and getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night. 
  • Impress upon workers the importance of wiping down germ-prone surfaces at home, being aware of other surfaces they touch outside the workplace (think public transportation turnstiles), and steering clear of friends outside work who are ill. 
  • Remind employees who travel that they’ll likely be exposed to viruses in confined spaces such as trains and planes and to take precautions before, during and after any trip.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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