There have been times Christie Johnson, the flight operations manager for Pilot International, has sent employees home when they’ve come to work sick.
And then there have been times she’s not followed that same course of action.
“I have worked when nobody should work, truthfully, but then I try to keep my distance,” she said, noting that – at this time of year in particular – tissues, hand-sanitizers and Lysol are readily available at every work station.
With cold and flu season entering its peak months of December through February, employees and employers will struggle with the dilemma of should you go to work or call in sick.
The practice of sick employees showing up for work – for reasons ranging from they don’t have sick leave to pressing workloads to pressuring bosses – even has a term. It’s called “presenteeism,” as in the opposite of absenteeism.
“That points out how well-recognized the phenomenon is if there’s a term for it,” said Keck Hartman, a physician with Infectious Disease Consultants in Wichita.
His advice, along with other local health experts, is to stay home if you’re sick, particularly if you have a fever.
“Most people would appreciate that,” he said. “It’s no fun to be around someone who is coughing and hacking. Not only does it not sound good, it gives a reason to be nervous.”
Besides giving your co-workers the heebie-jeebies, you’ll also not be doing yourself or your employer much good either.
“The problem is you’re not functioning at your top capacity when you’re ill, and you’re prolonging the illness,” said Adrienne Byrne-Lutz, interim director of the Sedgwick County Health Department. “A lot of people have a strong work ethic and believe they have to work no matter what, but they are putting themselves and others at risk.”
What is sick?
Human resources professionals don’t want sick employees coming to work either, but “it’s often the difficulty of determining what is sick,” said Teresa Bengtson, president of the Wichita chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management and the director of human resources at Dean & DeLuca.
Hartman and Byrne-Lutz agree that the most obvious clue is having a fever. Byrne-Lutz also added vomiting and diarrhea to the list of symptoms that should keep you home.
“Any time you have a fever, that’s a sign you’re not well enough to go to work or go out anywhere,” Hartman said.
Anyone infected with the influenza virus and having a fever should be restricted from work, and count on that being a few days, he said.
While a fever often isn’t a symptom of the common cold, you still may prolong or put others at risk for that illness, too.
“With the cold, you’re most contagious the first few days of symptoms,” he said. In those initial stages, you will “shed the most virus,” meaning it can be transmitted more easily.
Not all that long ago, Americans were very concerned about the transmission of the Ebola virus, Hartman noted.
“But we should be much more cognizant that the risks of colds and flu, especially influenza, are far more higher. Influenza accounts for thousands of deaths every year.”
Already influenza cases have been confirmed in Sedgwick County, Byrne-Lutz said.
Minimize the risk
If you do make the decision to go to work when sick, avoid close contact with others and practice good habits, said Byrne-Lutz.
Those good health habits are washing your hands often; avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, which are key entry points for germs; and cover your cough, preferably doing it in the crook of your arm. If you use a tissue or hand to cover the cough, immediately dispose of the tissue and, of course, wash your hands.
Many people, like Johnson, the employee, use Lysol or other anti-bacterial products to wipe down frequently touched workplace items, such as keyboards, doorknobs and phones.
If you’re healthy and would like to stay that way, you should also practice frequent hand-washing.
And it’s not too late to get a flu shot, said Byrne-Lutz and Hartman.
Creating a healthy environment
Reducing presenteeism, especially for employees with infectious diseases, takes more than an employer telling an employee to stay home, said a local expert on corporate wellness.
Elizabeth Ablah, an associate professor of public health and preventative medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, works with the statewide WorkWell KS initiative that helps with more than 300 employers on worksite wellness issues.
“Telling them to stay home when they’re sick is about as effective as telling them they need to be more physically active,” she said.
As she works with employers, she offers the following suggestions:
▪ Offer to provide the flu shot vaccination on-site for employees, or allow them to use work time to get a vaccination elsewhere. “We know it’s effective and employees feel supported.”
▪ Examine leave policies. Many workplaces combine sick and vacation time, so employees “don’t want to use it when they feel rotten.”
▪ Assess structures and deadlines. Is it possible for the employee to do some work from home, in between resting and recovery?
▪ Re-examine the use of point systems that penalize an employee for not showing up, even if they are ill. Under such systems, employees are fired after reaching a maximum of points, so sick employees come to work to avoid losing their job.