After four days in bed with the flu, Cindy Papale returned to her office only to have a colleague come in sniffling and coughing, touching common surfaces and spreading germs. Within a few days Papale was out again with a fever. “If people would stay home, then the rest of us might not get sick, too,” she said.
Flu season is here with a vengeance and it can be tough on the workplace, creating resentment among co-workers, testing flexibility policies and putting the boss in awkward situations. Whether motivated by fear of losing their jobs, a desire to look responsible, a need for income or reluctance to give up vacation days, employees inevitably come to work sick. Some even put up a fight when colleagues or a boss suggests they go home.
“When you work in a close environment, if someone is not telling you to go home, they’re thinking it,” explained Papale, an administrative assistant in a Miami-Dade office. “We’re all just trying to stay well.”
Experts are calling this flu season the worst in a decade, predicting that at least 20 percent of the population has fallen or will become ill. In the last few weeks, odds are that if you haven't had the flu, you know someone who has had it.
For businesses, a single flu-struck worker can have a domino effect. According to a new survey from the office supply company Staples, nearly 90 percent of office workers come to work even when they know they are sick. California-based Disability Management Employer Coalition estimates that employees who come to work with the flu increase lost workdays by 10 percent to 30 percent.
Still, some workplaces seem blind to the potential cost. One non-profit employee complained that in her workplace, if you call in sick, the boss treats you like you're a slacker and even compliments the work ethic of those who come to the workplace sniffling. Others say they are given a cold shoulder by fellow workers when they ask to work from home.
Office manager Rosie Toledo doesn’t agree with that line of thinking at all. “You have to think about the whole office,” she said. Toledo, who manages a Miami medical office, said she has no qualms about telling sick employees not to come in, or to go home if they come in ill.
“If you work somewhere with little interaction with others and can quarantine yourself, then it’s understandable to come in,’’ said Toledo. “But we interact with patients. I’d rather struggle without a person than have someone sick in the office.”
Toledo says she will allow an employee to work from home doing what they can and take a partial sick day. “I try to be flexible. It is tricky. Some people will question, ‘are they really that sick?’ ” Toledo notes that an employee at any workplace who comes in under the weather, typically fails to be productive, anyway. “When you are sick, you’re not fruitful anywhere you are at.”
Of course, some hourly workers come in sick because they need the income. More than 70 percent of low-wage workers get no paid sick days at all, according to the recently released Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink. Others save their time off to care for sick children.
Salaried workers who do get paid sick days say their behavior stems from dedication or fear. Research suggests businesses should be doing more to curb employees’ perceived workplace obligation to be at the office. “It’s rare that you have a manager who tells an employee who is sick to get his butt to work unless there’s a pattern of abuse of sick days,’’ said Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the national Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
As flu season drags on, bosses often find themselves in an awkward quandary. They need work completed, but they also want to avert widespread absenteeism.
At a restaurant, if a dishwasher stays home sick, that’s a hole in a key position. But the alternative could be worse. “If someone is on the edge and comes in, it can be devastating if they take out two or three other employees,” said Abe Ng, CEO of Miami-based Sushi Maki and Canton Chinese Restaurants, which has 15 locations. “It’s hard because some on the team are hourly, and they want to work.”
Telling a worker – or forcing them– to go home can be problematic. Ng tries to use diplomacy. “They understand when I explain the bigger picture. If they tough it out and get really sick, they will be out longer. If I am down one sushi chef, no big deal. But if I am down three, I’m in trouble. I try to put it in context for them. “
Increasingly, bosses say they get pushback from employees who insist they are well enough to be present.
“It comes down to counseling the employee and letting him know he really should go home,” said Elliott of SHRM, who has told employees to go home. Still, he says, “I would caution managers that if the employee says he is fine, leave it. You might want to monitor his activity though, and if it is way off, talk to him about taking tomorrow off.”
Some businesses try to curb flu outbreaks in their workplace by administering vaccines. Others rely on an effective leave policy and encourage workers to step up hygiene efforts.
Elliott said he has seen a definite return on investment for employers that offer flu shots in terms of lessened absenteeism. “It’s a proactive approach.”
This year, the Miami Dolphins took that proactive approach and gave its players and office workers flu shots. Some sports teams have gone as far as to quarantine players with flu symptoms to prevent contaminating teammates.
DHL, with 600 employees in Plantation, encourages flu shots by reimbursing the cost at 100 percent and emphasizing preventative care. The company allowsworkers to accrue sick time by hours worked from their first day on the job. And it separates paid vacation time off from sick time to encourage its use.
Most importantly, says Mari Toroker, senior manager of H R at DHL Express Americas, “We’re a tight environment, a cubicle environment, and we encourage anyonewho is sick to work from home. We really promote that internally.”
In the workplace, the flu viruses can survive on hard surfaces like keyboards and desks for up to 48 hours. But the most common way flu virus is spreadin offices is through person-to-person contact and airborne from coughing, said Giorgio Tarchini, an infectious disease doctor with Cleveland Clinic in Weston.
Often, he notes, people go back to work too soon. “They should wait 24 hours with no symptoms,” he said.
For those who have yet to get a flu shot, there still is time and reason to do so, said Tarchini. Flu season peaks in January and February and runs through April.
Now that she’s feeling healthy after two bouts of the flu, Papale is taking precautions by wiping down her work area and telephone. She hopes others in her office will do the same, that feverish co-workers stay home and that the flu virus is finally behind her -- at least for 2014.
A previous version of this article misspelled Cindy Papale's name.