- Flu season has arrived. Data from the CDC indicates a high volume of flu cases is putting a strain on hospital across the U.S.
- Employer response. Employers should foster an environment where employees are encouraged to stay home if they’re feeling sick and exhibit empathy toward employees with young children who could have additional childcare burdens from this flu season.
- Encourage preventative measures. Employers should encourage employees and their families to receive flu shots and COVID booster shots. To increase accessibility to these vaccines, employers can pick a day or days to offer them onsite during the workday.
- Review sick leave policies. Employers should be cognizant of what kind of leave is available to their employees as specified by different state legislation in addition to reviewing their own policies. Pertinent information should be communicated to employees.
- Flexibility is key. Having a flexible environment in place is critical to navigating work during this time and communication from business leaders and managers is necessary. All employees should know that if anyone in their family is sick, working from home is the best course of action.
While it’s been noted that full-time return-to-office mandates have been resisted by employees and mostly eschewed by employers, many organizations have returned to quasi-normal operations, with sizable portions of the workforce spending at least part of their week in a physical office space.
Those organizations, however, are now confronted with a familiar reality from the past couple years — sickness, this time in the form of the good old-fashioned flu. Weekly flu cases, hospitalizations and deaths have nearly doubled for the second week in a row, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So far this season, there have been at least 2.8 million illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations and 1,300 deaths from influenza. Fourteen states — mostly in the southeast and south-central regions of the U.S. — as well as New York City and Washington, D.C., are reporting "very high" levels of influenza-like activity, ABC News reported.
Thus, applying flexibility norms that became commonplace during the throes of the pandemic is prudent from both a workplace culture and risk management standpoint.
“We’ve learned a lot over the last two-and-a-half years, and we should be able to translate some of those lessons to this current context,” said Devjani Mishra, employment law attorney and shareholder at Littler Mendelson P.C.
Mishra, who is also a member of Littler’s “Return-to-Work" team, said employers should foster an environment where employees are encouraged to stay home if they’re feeling sick and exhibit empathy toward employees with young children who could have additional childcare burdens from this flu season.
“If kids are sick and not allowed to go to school or daycare, I think employers need to be sensitive to the fact that parents might not have a place to put their kids during the day,” she said.
Strategies for Employers
There are several preventive measures employers can take to mitigate the risk of a perpetually sick workplace in the coming months. First and foremost, Mishra said, employers should encourage employees and their families to receive flu shots and COVID booster shots. To increase accessibility to these vaccines, employers can pick a day or days to offer them onsite during the workday.
The most recent CDC data available found that just 25% of children have been vaccinated against the flu this year and just 45% of all adults 18 or older in the U.S.
Additionally, employers should be cognizant of what kind of leave is available to their employees as specified by different state legislation. Some states, such as New York, California, Colorado, offer COVID-specific sick leave, which should be communicated to employees in those states. For national organizations, having an effective sick leave policy should serve as a significant benefit over the next couple months and organizations that don’t have one in place will likely be tested.
“There’s growing discomfort to pressure people to come into work when they’re sick,” Mishra said. “Employers are realizing a sick-day policy is something they need to have, even in the states where it’s not required.”
Lastly, for organizations that don’t already have childcare programs in place, promoting a flexible environment by communicating the acceptance of remote work is critical to the employee experience during what could be a tumultuous time.
“Providing flexible work options to employees can help all segments of the workforce, especially parents,” said Leonora Georgeoglou, workplace sector leader at HED. “Communication from business leaders and managers is the key element here and all employees should know that if anyone in their family is sick, working from home is the best course of action.
“Companies need to ensure they are communicating their office policies frequently and empowering team members to prioritize health over being in person.”
It would also behoove organizations to strongly encourage employees who are feeling sick to stay home from risk management standpoint, Mishra noted, as employees who feel undue pressure to be in-person for work could put employers in a precarious position down the road for failure to promote a healthy workplace.
“Ultimately, this gets to, what kind of employer do you want to be, and it’s really about culture,” she said. “Are we the kind of place that demands everybody be here and follows this set of rules or the type of place that provides flexibility?”
Georgeoglou added that having a proper office setup will enable this smooth transition and some measures should already be in place for companies operating on a hybrid schedule.
“Including well positioned cameras in collaborative workstations, like cameras above tables, helps integrate virtual team members and creates a more functional hybrid work environment.” she said. “Other aspects that improve the hybrid experience are enhanced audio capabilities in conference rooms, designated screen space for remote workers and tables that place all participants at an equal stature.
“Having these elements set up ensures that teams aren’t sacrificing or reducing their quality of work if they’re required to work from home when a family member is sick.”
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