Give “Presenteeism” the Cold Shoulder this Flu Season

It starts innocently enough: an occasional sneeze here, a stray cough there. But in the time it takes to blow your nose, you’ve got what seems like an epidemic of employees hacking and sneezing all over the office. One by one, empty desks become more common as winter sets in, and you find yourself trying to piece together a staff just to get the everyday responsibilities accomplished while eyeing the calendar, awaiting the arrival of spring. As you reach once more for that box of Emergen-C on your desk, you ask yourself: “How does this happen every winter?”

Welcome to the world of “presenteeism,” the phenomenon that occurs when sick employees insist on “toughing it out” and coming to work, despite cold or flu symptoms that would bring a bull moose to its knees. There are many interesting psychological theories as to why some employees do this every year: job security, maybe an attempt to impress coworkers, or a hard-to-please boss. But whatever the reason, presenteeism often sets the table for its evil twin, absenteeism, to feast on your staff. This workplace malady is nothing to sneeze at: it’s estimated to cost employers some $160 billion in lost productivity a year, according to one leading medical journal.

So what’s the best way to combat this office scourge? As your mother used to tell you, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So, if your budget allows, provide healthy snacks like fruit and certain types of nuts for your employees that help ward off many types of colds and viruses. Almonds and sunflower seeds are both chock full of Vitamin E, which has been shown in some cases to boost immune systems. Bottled water to ensure better hydration and juices rich in Vitamins C and D are also helpful. Do you have a company First Aid kit? Along with the Tylenol and Band-Aids, stock it with echinacea drops and other products that can nip a nasty bug in the bud, before it strikes your minions. Also, stock your office with tissue boxes and liquid hand sanitizers, and encourage employees to wash their hands frequently in warm water and an anti-bacterial soap, one of the quickest ways to disrupt the spread of germs.

And remember, an employer has the right to tell a sick employee to go home, particularly if it seems the affliction could be contagious and spread via airborne transmission (that means a sneeze or a cough, for you regular folks like me). This is easier to do if you have a robust sick-leave plan, of course, and not every employer does. One survey revealed that 40 percent of private-sector workers and 80 percent of low-wage workers do not receive paid sick leave. Offering employees an opportunity to make up lost time via flexible work schedules or working from home are among just a few ways to alleviate the pressure of lost income that employees experience when missing work due to illness.

The key is to protect your staff from the dreaded “epidemic” effect, while ensuring the medical privacy of those afflicted, and at the same time maintain a high level of productivity in the workplace. It may seem like a juggling act, but it can be done with simple solutions, and your company’s performance may just depend on it.