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Coping with Workplace Illness

By Teri Bradshaw | January 16, 2018 << Back to Articles
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Imagine that you come to work one day and your co-worker in the cubicle across from you is sick. I mean really sick. She’s pale and glassy-eyed, shivering under layer upon layer of clothing. Her garbage can is overflowing with mucous-filled tissues and crinkled up cough drop wrappers. A tell-tale cup of hot tea steeps on her desk. She covers her mouth and nose when she coughs or sneezes, but every once in a while, you spy a few errant droplets landing on your desk. You lean over and whisper, “Why don’t you just go home?”

She looks around and quietly replies, “I can’t. It might show up on my review. Plus, if my kids get sick, I’ll have to miss work to take care of them—then what?” You nod, understanding her dilemma, but really wish she would just go home so you don’t get sick, too.

Now imagine that same co-worker mindlessly wipes her runny nose with her bare hand and then touches the same bathroom handle, cafeteria handle, and soda dispenser button that you and dozens of others in the company touch. You get the picture. How many others—in addition to you—will be exposed to her illness? Before you know it, she and half the office is out with the flu, and you and the others who somehow managed to dodge the infection are stressed out having to also manage double the normal workload.

If you’re like most people, you can relate to both of the individuals in the above scenario. I know I can. The question is, could the rapid spread of the flu throughout the office have been prevented, or at the very least, contained? The answer is yes, but only if your company (1) educates its employees to identify flu-like symptoms and what measures they can take to protect themselves and others, (2) creates and promotes a sick leave policy, (3) takes the necessary steps to prevent the spread of infection in the workplace, and (4) implements a business continuity plan in the event of a wide-spread infectious event. Let’s look at each one of these factors individually:

Education
Management should stay up-to-the-minute by accessing current information from local, state, and federal authorities, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and then share that information with employees. Employees need to be educated on how to identify flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, body ache, chills). Other actions employees can take to protect themselves and others include:

  • Maintaining a distance of three feet between themselves and coworkers to minimize the spread of infectious germs.
  • Not touching or using equipment that belongs to other employees, including phones, keyboards, pens, and staplers.
  • Covering their mouths and noses with a tissue or handkerchief when coughing or sneezing. Tissues should always be placed in plastic-lined garbage cans.
  • Wiping down work areas with disinfectant wipes, especially high-touch surfaces, such as light switches, door handles, phone receivers, etc.
  • Minimizing personal contact by using e-mail, Web conferences, interoffice phone calls, etc.
  • Most importantly—staying home when they are sick.


Develop a Sick Leave Policy
Management may feel that absenteeism is the biggest problem with sick leave, but in fact, it seems presenteeism (working while sick) is even worse, Not only does the productivity of the sick employees drop, often increasing the chance of mistakes and leaving coworkers to pick up the slack, but it also puts healthy (productive) workers at risk of falling ill.

A sick leave policy should be explained to new employees, letting them know that if they have any flu-type symptoms, they should stay home and seek medical attention. An “organizational culture” of employees who come to work no matter what, makes those who should stay home due to illness feel obligated to come to work. Companies should recognize that people are going to miss work due to illness, but should also reiterate that repeated absences without a doctor’s excuse will not be tolerated. In addition, companies should understand that their employees may need to stay home to care for children who are home sick or home because their schools or daycares have been closed in an attempt to prevent further transmission. Some cases may be covered under the Family Medical Leave Act.

One thing is for certain: If the culture of the company is one based on fear that an absence will be held against them at a later time (for example, during their annual review), employees will come to work sick. Lastly, management needs to lead by example. If employees see that their bosses come to work sick, they are surely not going to miss work either.

Prevention
I worked for a company once that in no way exhibited an “organizational culture” where employees felt comfortable taking sick leave (which is why I was typically the sick co-worker grossing out everyone around me). However, I will say that although the company atmosphere scared many of us into presenteeism, its management did take some tangible precautions to try and prevent the spread of germs throughout the workplace. Here are some ways this and other companies help prevent or slow the rate of transmission:

  • Signs should be posted in restrooms and throughout the building about the importance of hand hygiene, including thorough washing and drying.
  • Make tissues and hand sanitizing gel available to all employees.
  • Prop open doors common areas, board rooms, cafeterias, etc.
  • Install hands-free systems in restrooms and breakrooms.
  • Ensure the in-house cleaning staff is using disinfectants and color-coded technology to kill viruses and prevent cross-contamination or hire a third-party vendor that provides hygienic cleaning services.
  • Provide sanitary wipes and disinfectant spray to all employees and encourage them to wipe down their work areas daily.
  • Minimize personal contact as previously suggested, especially during germ-prone times such as flu season.


Business Continuity Plan
It’s a fact that business doesn’t stop due to illness; so if a company wants to come out the other side of a pandemic relatively unscathed, management must create and implement a business continuity plan. Leaders need to understand that widespread outbreaks of an infectious disease or virus will not just affect their companies, but also their suppliers, shipping companies, and even their customers. To maintain normal business procedures, managers should:

  • Recognize business processes that must continue to operate in the event of a pandemic event and create a backup plan that will ensure their continuance. Identify key employees and have them train backups in case they fall ill. Cross training should be done throughout the company to ensure flexibility in the ability to continue customer service during periods of short staffing.
  • Develop relationships with several vendors to ensure business processes continue as seamlessly as possible. Find different suppliers for your products/raw materials, utilize multiple shipping companies, and if your company has multiple locations, outsource some of your work to the other locations where the infection is not as bad.
  • Develop an emergency communication plan; one component of the plan should be the ability for your employees to telecommute should the company choose to close or run skeleton crews to try and interrupt the transmission cycle.


The Possible Impacts of Workplace Illnesses
In the previous paragraphs, I discussed in somewhat vague terms how a widespread infectious event could affect a business. However, I think it is important to give a real-world example so to bring the proper perspective. The vignette below is from the white paper “Infectious Disease in the Workplace, People at Risk,” which was produced and distributed by Aon Risk Services.

“In 2006, a measles outbreak occurred in Boston, MA, and over 1,000 employees of a financial institution were impacted. The infection … was traced to an unvaccinated contract employee from Asia. By order of the Department of Health, the firm required employees who could have come in contact with an infected individual and who could not produce documentation of vaccination or serologic proof of immunity to be excluded from work for 21 days unless vaccinated within 72 hours. In addition, the firm had to provide surveillance for 42 days after the last rash outbreak. The organization had to mobilize employees to be able to work from home; distribute the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine; and make regular reports to the health department. In the end, 31 communities were impacted and 12,000 doses of vaccine distributed at the cost of US$250,000.”

The above company may have had to pay $250,000 to distribute vaccines, but how much money did it really lose in productivity, increased cost of benefits, etc.?

Aon Risk Services goes on to state that research shows, “It costs an organization an average of $392 each day an employee is out with a flu-related illness, and typically at least 15 percent of employees are out of the office each year due to the flu alone… for an average of six days.” If you were to do the math, an organization with 100 employees would see at least 15 employees out for six days a year at the cost of $392 per day for each employee—that’s more than $35,000 lost in just one year!

After looking at these numbers, it is apparent that all companies, no matter their size, should take the potential for an infectious disease outbreak very seriously by cleaning and assuring sick employees stay home rather than spread their germs!

If a company follows the steps necessary to protect their employees from rampant transmission, encourages their employees to stay home if they are sick, and implements a business continuity plan, they have a much better chance of maintaining business as normal during flu season or any other infectious disease event.

Revised January 2018


Teri Bradshaw is director of operations for 360clean, a leading building service contractor based in Charleston, SC. She can be reached at or, for more information, visit www.360clean.com.

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