sick_leave

It seems hard to believe in the middle of August that we should be concerned about workplace illness, but, believe it or not, cold and flu season is just around the corner.

With school getting ready to start again in a few weeks, it’s time to take necessary precautions to combat illness, such as getting a flu shot. But there are other things that should be routinely considered, such as washing hands, cleaning desks, emptying trash, having a healthy supply of hand sanitizer available and, especially in busy staffing offices, wiping down door handles.

The reality is that workplace illness is a problem. It costs businesses in the United States more than $570 billion per year. It also can place a burden and increased stress on co-workers who have to fill the void for the absent worker. And, while there seems to be an uptick in absenteeism around holidays and national sporting events, most folks who are sick are legitimately ill or overly fatigued and should, for the good of their co-workers, take a day or two off to get healthy.

But are their different types of illness? Absolutely.

sick_leaveFirst, there is what I would call “healthy” sickness. In other words, a person is otherwise physically healthy, but, because they feel over-worked and overwhelmed, that person becomes exhausted. This can happen at inopportune times. For example, a company has what seems to be an impossible deadline for a major project and the employee knows it; so, they will attempt to fight through the fatigue in order meet the deadline and may begin to make mistakes or errors in judgment in the process. Most associates won’t take off because they do not want to “let the team down” or show that they cannot handle the “heat in the kitchen.” The best way to combat this is for employees or managers to plan some downtime, if possible, before things heat up. Managers should know what’s on the horizon and ensure their employees are rested and ready for the upcoming challenge. There should also be an emphasis on preventative measures, such as encouraging healthy eating and exercise, which not only can help resist viruses, but also increase stamina.

Second, there is actual sickness. A study performed in 2013 found that 90 percent of office workers went to work sick in 2012 even though they knew they were ill. In addition, according to the study, they were only 60 percent as productive as they would have been if they were healthy. Even though they are sick, some people still come into work because they convince themselves that although they are not feeling 100 percent, they are feeling well-enough to come into work.Why would they jeopardize their own welfare and the health of their colleagues? Likely causes include fear of falling behind on job orders and missing deadlines for important clients. Fear of being downsized. The threat of another taking their place. Concern over loss of productivity. Or, simply, not wanting to use their sick time for actual sickness…they’d rather use it for other personal time.

So, how should an employer handle this situation? By not being afraid to send someone home – regardless of their sick-leave balance. It’s likely healthier for your staff and productivity in the long run. And, again, promote preventative medicine, such as diet and exercise. But also examine the amount of time you can afford to have a person miss work. And also reassure them that their missing work will not turn their fears into reality.

Finally, the workplace is filled with stories of people battling long-term, chronic illness. But unless you, as a manager, are truly observant and engaged with your employees, you may never know what they are experiencing and might not be able to provide the necessary concern, empathy, and, more importantly for this post, business management skills to get the most out of your team.

While some may not want to relate their personal problems to their manager, the reality is that most people are struggling with issues and likely are in need at some point of some medical attention that will cause them to miss work (even routine doctors appointments), whether they appear sick or not.

There are millions of people who are living with invisible illnesses who go through each day as if nothing is happening to them. For some of these people, sometimes getting out of bed is a struggle all by itself. They may have to face skepticism from people — friends, family, and co-workers, as well as strangers — who do not understand what is wrong with them. The pain becomes unbearable at points and people enter “social isolation” (“The Challenges of Living with Invisible Pain or Illness”).

People struggle with a myriad of things – allergies, eczema, trigeminal neuralgia, Chron’s disease, cancer, addiction, diabetes – among many others. And there are times when the illness reaches far beyond what the employee can tolerate and they have to get help. FMLA is a resource that provides the employee with the extra time necessary to mend and get back to being themselves. During the time while the employee is away, as we know well in the staffing industry, a temp may be supplied to keep things up and running so the company doesn’t miss a beat.

But even if long-term assistance is unnecessary, management should be aware of the struggle and supportive of the employee and their personal management of the illness. For these people, EVERY day is a battle.

So, what’s the bottom-line regarding management of workplace illness? In a word: culture. Having unity in the workplace, a supportive team, understanding managers, and promoting healthy living all will ultimately reduce illness, increase productivity, and improve the bottom-line. And this culture will also help strengthen connections, create a sense of belonging, increase trust in our larger networks (such as with staffing clients), and contribute to a happier workplace for everyone.

Being supportive and knowing that someone has your back is not only the right thing to do, it’s also good business.

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