Sick? Co-Workers Say, 'Don't Come In!'

By Beth Mirza Oct 23, 2009
Got an employee with a cough? His co-workers might send him packing if he doesn’t go home soon, according to a new poll.

More than 90 percent of Americans said they want their co-workers to remain at home if they are infected with the H1N1 flu, according to a survey from Mansfield Communications. Eighty-three percent of respondents say they would tell colleagues or senior management if a co-worker came to work with symptoms of the flu.

The survey interviewed 2,029 Americans Oct. 5-11, 2009.

“Very few times do we get 90 percent agreement on anything,” said Rob Ireland, partner at Mansfield. “This indicates a vehement and strident response.”

The phenomenon isn’t limited to the United States. Rhonda Suurd, GPHR, OCT, director of Human Resources at Ontario Education Collaborative Marketplace/Marché Éducationnel Collaboratif de l'Ontario, said she’s noticed an increase in peer pressure as well.

“When someone hears a co-worker cough, sneeze or sniffle, they say, “Why are you here? Take your computer and go,’” Suurd said. “Purell is passed around like candy. The CFO has sent home people who don’t work for him.”

The 20-person office hasn’t had any confirmed cases of H1N1 yet, said Suurd, who has been developing the company’s pandemic plan since joining the organization in September 2009. In the case of an outbreak, nearly the entire office will work from home, Suurd said. If individual employees are quarantined because of personal illness, that person will be placed on short-term disability. So far, the city of Toronto, where Suurd works, has only seen a dozen or so cases of H1N1.

Suurd said she came from a company that was struggling financially. The culture there was that employees should come to work regardless of how ill they were. “In this office, that’s not what we’re seeing,” Suurd said. “There’s almost a hint of paranoia.”

As the number of people infected with the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, grows, people are getting more scared and “irrational,” Ireland said. Employers need to provide information to their employees—on leave policies, proper hygiene practices, working from home—to keep fears at bay.

“Once you cross the boundary from rational to emotional, you can’t come back,” Ireland said. “The company’s job is to prepare employees” so that they don’t overreact to every sniffle and sneeze coming from the cubicle next door.

A previous survey from Mansfield found that 69 percent of workers said they had received no information about H1N1 from their employer (see Hey HR, What’s Our H1N1 Policy?). Front-line managers, especially, are going to face the brunt of employee backlash if companies don’t communicate in a meaningful way with their employees. Without the proper training to handle employees’ anger and fear over possible exposure to H1N1, “I can see absolute paralysis for the organization,” Ireland said. “Morale is down the tubes.”

HR can help front-line managers by preparing them to deal with frightened employees and coaching them to stop employees from blaming others for possibly spreading the virus. Make sure everyone knows the sick leave policies, and try to equip as many people as possible to work from home, Ireland advised.

“Firmly and proactively give these messages and set people’s minds at ease,” he said. “Otherwise, [front-line managers] will have no ability to manage this feedback.”

Employees Change Behavior to Avoid Flu

According to a poll by the ComPsych Corp., more than 70 percent of employees are changing their behavior to sidestep the H1N1 virus. Almost half have stopped shaking hands or touching common workplace surfaces, the survey found. Other changes:

  • More inclined to get a flu shot—16 percent.
  • More likely to stay home/keep family members home if there are flu symptoms—8 percent.
  • No, my habits haven’t changed—29 percent.
Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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