The Chicago Tribune's cover of the Sunday business section has a story, like dozens we're seeing now, about Firms bracing for a rash of flu absences. While I hope the H1N1 flu season doesn't prove to be much worse than a typical flu season, most companies (and certainly the major media) are already assuming the worse.
Tips for H1N1 flu prevention and treatment
-- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
-- Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use alcohol-based sanitizers, especially after you cough or sneeze.
-- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth to limit the spread of germs.
-- Avoid close contact with sick people.
-- If sick, stay home for seven days after your symptoms begin or until you have been symptom-free for 24 hours, whichever is longer.
-- Follow public health advice regarding school closings, avoiding crowds and other social-distancing measures.
-- Get both the seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccinations, when available. This is especially important for pregnant women, caregivers to infants and health care personnel.
-- If you contract swine flu, talk to your doctor about antiviral medications Tamiflu and Relenza, which can lessen the duration and severity of the illness.
-- For more information visit flu.gov.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Pretty much all common sense, right? The first 5 tips especially are behaviors that make sense ALL the time--not just when there's a pandemic. But, no matter how much the CDC says it, and no matter how much we all know it makes sense, how many people actually stay home when they are sick? (Let alone for seven days!?!!?)
This isn't all about company policy (it is also a lot about individual choices) but, there are a ton of benefit programs and policy factors at play here--time off programs, sick leave, coverage for preventive care, short-term disability policies, family leave, access to child care, the list goes on and on. A company can't be successful with the message "please stay home when you're sick" if they don't have the policies, business process and culture that allow for that.
While many companies have moved from separate sick, holiday and vacation banks to one single "Paid time off" for flexibility, those policies may unintentionally encourage people to work when they are sick. Would you rather come into the office with the sniffles or take a day off of your upcoming vacation to Maui?
What if furloughs have drained people's vacation and PTO banks this year? How will you encourage workers to stay home when they're sick if they are going to have to take a pay cut to do it? Do your policies support parents who may need to stay home with sick kids?
And, what about hourly and low-wage workers? How do you encourage them to take time off if being sick for a week may mean not being able to make rent that month?
Think about the business culture too. Do the work requirements of a specific line of business set the expectation that no one can ever miss a day? How many knowledge workers still come into the office when they're sick even though they have laptops and cell phones, because they don't have a good relationship with their manager? How many managers don't really understand the time off and benefit policies in the first place?
Lots of questions and no easy answers. And, much at stake as we know the cost of lost productivity and absenteeism. As you plan for the flu season, look deeper--beyond common sense communication and business planning--are your benefits programs, policies and business culture truly supporting the health of your workforce this flu season? Or, are they discrediting your message and encouraging exactly the opposite behaviors you need?
Editor's Note - Jennifer Benz is founder and chief strategist at Benz Communications, a boutique consulting firm that focuses on employee benefits communication. You can reach her at email@example.com or via Twitter @jenbenz.