It's fall, and as sure as the season change brings excitement for seasonal lattes and holiday sales, it also signals the beginning of cold and flu season.
This onslaught of germs and viruses can fill employers with dread. Offices and workplaces across the country can be swarming with sick workers, leading to reduced productivity as employees either take sick days or show up to work sick—a practice economists call "presenteeism." Up to 20 percent of Americans get the flu each year, which, according to the CDC, costs businesses $87 billion a year.
That's why savvy business owners are getting a step ahead of cold and flu season with policies that protect their business and their employees. A number of small-business owners spoke to OPEN Forum about how they support their staff and keep their business productive during this sniffly time of the year.
Paid Sick Leave
The United States doesn't have an universal paid sick leave policy, but a recent working paper by economists from Cornell University and the Swiss Economic Institute make a great case for it: Flu infection rates would go down 10 percent countrywide if people had it, as fewer of them would come in and spread their germs to coworkers or customers. While 77 percent of workers surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics had access to unpaid leave, only 53 percent were able to take paid leave, according to a White House report.
"One economic purpose of providing paid sick leave is to provide financial incentives for sick workers to call in sick, such that infections caused by contagious presenteeism are minimized," the paper states.
But it takes more than just offering employees sick days. They should know that they won't be penalized for using them, according to a survey conducted by Staples Advantage, the business-to-business arm of the office supply company.
"Survey data shows people are coming to work sick even though they know it’s wrong," says Chris Correnti, vice president of Staples Facility Solutions at Staples Advantage. "Of the 30 percent of survey respondents who got the flu last year, 55 percent still went to work sick—and it’s not because they didn’t have sick days available. Almost 40 percent noted the amount of sick leave provided by their employer had no impact at all on their decision to take time off when sick with the flu."
Why? According to the survey, "58 percent think there is too much going on to take a sick day, 50 percent feel pressure to be at work or 'tough it out,' and 25 percent say they aren’t confident that someone else can handle their work when they’re out," Correnti says.
Create a culture where your employees know it's worse to come in sick and jeopardize the health of their coworkers than to call in sick, and you're a step closer to reducing presenteeism at your office.
Provide "Sick Instances"
Sometimes sick days go beyond the allotted number and spill into personal days and vacation time. Employees who want to conserve their paid time off may still feel compelled to come into the office before they're feeling up to it—but a policy that lets them keep their days and focus on getting well works out for everyone.
"We're a staff of less than 20, so illness travels fast," explains Rich Kahn, founder and CEO of eZanga, an online marketing firm. "Rather than offering a set number of sick days, we offer sick instances. With sick days, we found people would return to the office long before they're healthy again or even when still contagious. With sick instances, employees have access to three sick instances consisting of five days each instance. After the second day, we require a doctor's note to ensure the system is not abused, but have found the number of major illnesses has been severely reduced in the office. Plus, parents love access to the sick instances to use for their children. They're able to keep their vacation time for just that while ensuring they and their family are well taken care of."
Make Wellness Part of Your Company Culture
When cold and flu season knocks out your staff, it can make it hard to get orders out. Ed McMasters of Flottman Company, a printed literature manufacturer based in Cincinnati, Ohio, knows this firsthand, after having "multiple orders that were a struggle to complete" due to reduced staff.
That's why Flottman has put a consistent wellness policy in place. There's a health and safety coordinator, hand sanitizer everywhere, weekly wipe downs of communal spaces and equipment, along with posters reminding staff to wash their hands. According to McMasters, these features have reduced absenteeism by 22.5 percent since the policy was implemented two years ago.
"We made the changes for the simplest of reasons: the health of our employees," McMasters explains. "Additionally, we knew that the reduction of used sick days would help us increase our production capacities. This program was part of our continuous improvement process that we consistently update and retarget."
Chris LaRocca of St. Louis, Missouri's Crushed Red Urban Bake & Chop Shop has gone a step further in bringing wellness to his team. After several E. coli outbreaks in a nearby town, LaRocca decided it was time to bring more accountability to handwashing in his restaurants. In 2008 he partnered up with Clean Hands, a voice-activated machine installed in all three of his restaurants' bathrooms that keeps track of how often employees are washing their hands. (The requirement is at least once every hour.) He gets weekly reports outlining the required hand-washing percentage, and how each employee stacks up.
"Some are at 200 percent, while others may be at 40 percent," LaRocca says. "When I go into the restaurant, I’ll call out whoever didn’t meet the hand-washing requirement, 'Hey Mr. 40 percent, how’s your day?' or something along those lines. I’ll sit the employee down and talk with them the first time it happens. Myself and all of the managers try to always underscore this is not a game; this is very important. Usually this is all it takes to get that employee's numbers up," but the results are tied to performance reviews and potential raises. Using this technology has created a much healthier team that of employees who need fewer sick days, he adds.
The relief of knowing his staff is doing everything it can to stop the spread of disease comes at a cost—a hefty $7,000 fee for each installation. "It’s a one-time fee that may hurt at the time, but is worth it in the long run," LaRocca says. "I would rather spend $7,000 than have someone get sick in my restaurant or have cold and flu season knock out half of my staff."
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