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“I See Sick People…”: A Call to Prioritize Workplace Health and Safety

By February 26, 2024April 3rd, 2024No Comments

Let’s address a common workplace reality: the tendency to show up for work despite being unwell. It’s a scenario many of us have experienced. Our dedication to our roles often drives us to soldier on through illness, juggling responsibilities and deadlines while disregarding the potential consequences. Unlike planned absences, such as vacations, we rarely consider the ramifications of working while unwell, including the risk of spreading illness to coworkers and their families. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for our employees, especially as cases of the flu and COVID-19 rise during this time of year.

The COVID-19 pandemic heightened the stakes of attending work while sick. While we’ve transitioned from pandemic to endemic phase, periodic spikes in infections remain a reality, akin to flu seasons. This increased awareness of contagious illnesses underscores the necessity for robust workplace illness policies. While in the past, we might have powered through colds or flu, the threat of COVID-19 transmission further heightens the need to prioritize employee health and safety. Legally, under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers are obligated to ensure the workplace is safe and healthy.

Consider flu season. What measures do you have in place for employees who come to work unwell? Do you adhere to these policies as a manager? Does your organization grapple with presenteeism, where employees attend work but operate below their usual capacity due to illness? Presenteeism isn’t about shirking responsibilities; it’s about reduced productivity due to genuine health issues.

In the context of COVID-19, presenteeism poses an even greater risk. Employees attending work while displaying symptoms endanger not only their health but also that of their colleagues, people you serve, and the wider community. Organizations must address presenteeism head-on and establish clear protocols for when employees should stay home.

How should you handle visibly ill employees? Start by evaluating your organization’s culture and practices. Does your leadership team model “working through illness”? Do you have policies encouraging sick employees to stay home? Do you clearly communicate expectations, such as staying home with a fever and for 24 hours after it subsides?

It’s crucial to reassess and reinforce these policies. Transparent communication about the symptoms of COVID-19, RSV, and the flu and the importance of self-isolation is paramount. If possible, allow remote work at the first sign of illness. Consider incorporating a statement into your handbook outlining expectations.

It’s time to prioritize employee health over attendance. Cease rewarding employees for working while sick. Consider waiving the need for a doctor’s note for absences during flu season. Discourage presenteeism, particularly given the heightened risks of contagious illnesses like COVID-19, RSV, and other viral and bacterial infections. Incentivize employees to prioritize their health and that of their colleagues.

If you send an employee home due to illness, clarify the use of accrued leave or offer unpaid time off. Ensure compliance with relevant labor laws, including reporting time pay where applicable.

About Us

For more than 40 years, 501(c) Services has been a leader in offering solutions for unemployment costs, claims management, and HR support to nonprofit organizations. Two of our most popular programs are the 501(c) Agencies Trust and 501(c) HR Services. We understand the importance of compliance and accuracy and are committed to providing our clients with customized plans that fit their needs.

Contact us today to see if your organization could benefit from our services.

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The information contained in this article is not a substitute for legal advice or counsel and has been pulled from multiple sources.

(Images by Drazen Zigic and Yulia Raneva)

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