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Your Corporate Policies Are Making People Sick

January 16, 2013

The U.S. is in the grip of a flu season that began earlier than usual, features stronger strains of the virus and includes a widespread outbreak of whooping cough. Just take a look at the flu map at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and you’ll see that all but three states are reportedly in the grip of a widespread flu outbreak.

What does this have to do with HR and finance? Plenty. Absent workers are a drain on productivity. But sick workers who come into work anyway are even worse. These workers are far less productive than their healthy peers. Moreover, sick employees can also spread the virus to co-workers, customers, suppliers and anyone else they come in contact with during the course of the workday. In the end, these individuals represent not only the drain such presenteeism (working at less than full capacity because of poor health) has on productivity but demonstrate how such behavior can make a bad situation worse.

A 2012 study conducted by The Integrated Benefits found that poor health in general costs businesses $576 billion annually in lost productivity. Nearly 40% of that total ($227 billion) is in the form of presenteeism. For CFOs, these numbers should be a wake up call. If a company does not offer paid sick time to employees, chances are very good that presenteeism is rampant at this time of year. Moreover, as sick employees come to work to avoid lost wages or, worse, in response to threats of job loss in a still slow economy, they help to keep the epidemic going by infecting others.

Even companies that have policies in place to avoid these scenarios can experience widespread presenteeism if those policies are not enforced throughout the company. In other words, offering paid sick time will not do much good if managers and peers put pressure on workers to come in even when they are sick. The question CFOs and HR leaders need to ask is: Does the company culture explicitly or implicitly encourage presenteeism?

Beyond that, there are some more immediate ways employers can help protect the workforce from the flu. First, it is not too late for healthy employees to get a flu vaccine. The best way to encourage that is to sponsor an onsite vaccine clinic or to provide information and time off for employees to get vaccinated elsewhere. The few hours of lost productivity will be more than made up for in the form of healthy employees who do not miss work with the flu. The CDC offers some resources for employers that want to go this route.

Second, because the flu is spread from person to person from a distance as far away as six feet and by touching an infected surface, companies can limit large meetings, encourage telecommuting where appropriate and even place hand sanitizers throughout the workplace in order to limit the spread of the virus.

There is a kernel of potential good news. CDC officials are not yet calling this year’s flu season an epidemic and they note that the outbreak this year may have already peaked, although only time will tell if that is the case.

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