Why You Must Encourage Employees to Stay Home When They’re Sick

Employee coughing into his elbow
Min Yee
July 15, 2022
1 min read
Employee coughing into his elbow

We all know that it is vital that your business has a safe and healthy environment. So it should go without saying that you should encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick. In this article, I will explain why your team shouldn’t come to work unwell, and provide you with actionable tips to manage the issue in your workplace.

Once upon a time, employees were berated for not attending unless their illness was just about life threatening. Nowadays, thanks to better work practices, management and care, we understand that this is not good behaviour or business practice.

Although we encourage you to read this article from top to bottom, this article has been divided into sections, so you can easily jump to that section if required.

The sections are;

So without any further preamble, let’s jump into it.

Why is going to work unwell an issue?

So does it really matter if your employees spread some colds or flu? Yes, it sure does. This is serious. The World Health Organisation states that lower respiratory infections (such as pneumonia and bronchitis) remained the world’s most deadly communicable disease, ranked as the fourth leading cause of death. In 2019 it claimed 2,600,000 lives (Source: WHO).

If you have a contagious virus or illness, such as a cold, flu or even COVID, it is very important that you keep your distance from others to prevent spreading the illness. These recommendations are really targeted to preventing spread.

While young, fit people can recover relatively quickly, other demographics—such as the elderly—may in fact be at an increased risk of complications when infected with dangerous viruses such as Influenza.

Another major reason why attending work when you are sick is frowned upon is the lack of work you’ll actually get done. This is called presenteeism.

Presenteeism is a growing trend of people coming to work while they’re sick, and it’s costing businesses billions of dollars. In 2010, the annual cost of presenteeism, $180 billion, surpassed the cost of absenteeism, $118 billion (Source).

Reasons why you should stay home when you’re sick

There are a number of reasons that leaders should always encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick. These include (but are not limited to);

  • Avoid spreading your illness
  • Protect yourself from additional complications
  • Protect vulnerable people
  • Prevent future sickness
  • Be a good role model
  • Rest and recover from illness
  • Avoid days of reduced productivity

Let’s jump in and explain these in some more detail to clarify.

Avoid spreading your illness

As previously mentioned, there are many illnesses that can be extremely dangerous to those with low immunity, pregnant women, young children and those with pre-existing conditions. Staying home stops the spread.

Protect yourself from additional complications

When you are unwell, pushing yourself physically and mentally can bring you further complications, stress and in some cases, hospitalisation. Your body needs time to recover; give it that time.

Protect vulnerable people

As mentioned, the vulnerable within our communities can easily catch something which you and I would find mild, and it becomes very serious for them. Don’t have that on your conscience.

Prevent future sickness

According to this article, a number of studies have found that working while sick can increase the risks of poor health in the future. It also increased the risk of workers having to take more time off due to sickness 18 months later. When you encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick, you are actually reducing the time they end up taking off from work.

Be a good role model

Illness is contagious and can easily be spread to those around you. With influenza, for example, it’s important that people take extra precautions and stay home to avoid spreading the illness.

To really encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick you need to ‘walk the talk’ yourself as well. If you feel unwell, do the right thing too.

Rest and recover from illness

When unwell, your body and mind are using all their powers to battle your illness. Signs of this include fever, sweats and the like. The body is literally fighting your illness, so it needs plenty of rest and reduced stress to do the job effectively.

Avoid days of reduced productivity

Not only are you not 100% productive when trying to work through an illness, you are likely going to end up unwell for more days than if you went straight home and rested.

You may think you are doing your bosses or employer a favour by working through your sickness, but you are actually making matters worse for yourself and those around you.

Did you know?

The 2016 Aflac WorkForces Report found that 54 percent of employers have a company sponsored wellness program and over half of those said the service has reduced overall employee health costs.

Additionally, among employees offered a wellness program, 61 percent of employees agree that they’ve made healthier lifestyle choices because of their company’s wellness program.

How to encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick

In a hospital, healthcare management practices dictate that employees have to wear a gown, gloves and masks, but at your office, employees will inevitably play the role of hero when they show up for work when they’re ill.

Remember, it is their job to get the job done. In this case, showing up to work sick means that you will sacrifice your productivity and potentially infect those around you with a fever, cough or sore throat that could be related to a more serious illness.

You can, of course, install temperature screening devices, and have random health checks, however it also requires common sense from your employees to follow your organisation policies when coming to work unwell.

It is important to have policies in place to guide you as a leader in caring for your employees when they are ill. There is a difference between a cold and a flu; a sore throat may not be that serious, however do you really know?

It really is very important to encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick. Here are some practical methods that can help you do just that.

Encourage your employees to stay home by giving them incentives

You can consider creating some incentives to encourage employees to stay home when they’re ill. For example, a care basket or time off during quiet times can be an important incentive to stay home when you are unwell.

Create a plan with your team for who will cover each other

You must create a plan with your team for who will cover and what to do if someone stays home due to illness. Letting them know that their work will be covered helps employees reduce feelings of stress and worry when calling in sick.

Make clear that it is not ok to go to work when you’re sick

You must always positively encourage employees who are sick to stay home when they’re not at work.

However, as an employer, you also have a moral and legal responsibility to protect your employees, especially when they are exposed to unwell co-workers. This means that you can be held liable if someone gets sick at your workplace.

To prevent any unnecessary blame or retaliation for coming to work while unwell, make it clear to your team that when they are sick, they really need to stay home.

Provide employees with paid sick leave

In Australia, thanks to the National Employment Standards, full time employed people have a legal right to ten days a year of sick leave. However that doesn’t always apply if you are contract or casual.

Many forward thinking companies now realise the importance of giving employees paid sick days off, as a way to encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick.

Create a sense of community by encouraging one another to stay home when sick

Creating a good team environment where people are supportive and empathetic towards each other really helps drive the messaging home. Employees who come into work when unwell can be encouraged by their colleagues to stay home or at least work remotely.

Healthy workplace tip: Offer free fruit to employees
Healthy workplace tip: Offer free fruit to employees

How to make your workspace healthy

Having you and your managers encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick is just part of the overall picture. Wellbeing starts from within. As such, it is important that employees have the right tools and equipment to complete their work in a safe and healthy manner.

Having a healthy and productive work environment has been shown to directly correlate to productivity levels, and you can achieve this through creating a healthy working space, and by implementing a few simple measures.

The following tips have been written for you to make your office a healthier place to work and be more productive, beyond just having you encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick.

Comfortable work environment

Just like exercise, if you have a comfortable chair and keyboard that works well for you, you are going to do it more often. If you have a set of tools that are durable and that you can use without getting tired, it is easier to do those tasks in the factory, job site or in your office.

Minimalism is attractive

Get rid of the clutter in your office space, clear desks so that there is ample room to work. Avoid cables and trip hazards and minimise ‘needless junk’ wherever possible.

Ergonomics goes beyond the desk

It isn’t just your desk and chair that need to be ergonomic.  Look to do other things such as ensure there are no equipment such as scanners or printers on the floor or on very low areas, or even not on a level surface.

In the same vein, don’t put the printers and copiers on a high surface either; this can make it more tiring and stressful to use and strain your back.

Share knowledge in preventing contagion

You should encourage your employees to understand what they can personally do to reduce the chance of spread when they have something contagious such as a cold or flu.

  • Avoid physical contact with other people, especially shaking hands.
  • Always cough and sneeze into your elbow, not your hand.
  • Limit interaction with other people as much as practical.
  • Encourage social distancing of at least 1.5 metres, or more if possible.
  • Always wipe surfaces down after touching them.
  • Use hand sanitiser or wash your hands after coughing or sneezing.
  • Wear a mask to limit the respiratory droplets.
  • Have someone in charge of employee vaccination tracking.
  • Take medication to reduce your symptoms.

Consider printing these dot points out and sticking them up on the staff fridge or common areas as a reminder.

Sanitise surfaces regularly

Just as we all learned during the pandemic, having all commonly used surfaces regularly cleaned and sanitised is great for reducing spread of illnesses. If you do not have full time cleaning staff, make it a responsibility for someone in each team or department to stay on top of regular cleaning and surface wipe downs where possible.

Because you actively encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick, there should be less germs on any work surfaces anyway.

Provide fresh air

Any workspace that is indoors should have ample ways for employees to seek out fresh air. A healthy office environment is one that should reduce your exposure to pollutants and allergens.

There should be lots of open spaces, easy walking paths and a path for employees to take outdoors for fresh air. If you don’t have many outdoor options, look at having indoor plants that help clean the air, or even purchase some quality air purifiers for the workplace.

Install natural light

Surround yourself with bright, natural light when working to boost your mood and productivity. Shut down the lights in the afternoon and use natural light to eliminate the lull of night and allow for natural light to shine throughout the day.

Offices and indoor work spaces should have plenty of windows to allow natural light to be seen and enjoyed. The more natural the environment, the better you will be at functioning in it, as sunlight is the best natural source of energy for humans.

Let your employees choose their own location

You should encourage your team to choose their own work location for their own personal preference. This may mean they want to be close to a window, or further from light and distractions such as hallways or conference tables.

Inspire the team to be creative

Encouraging your employees to seek new ways of approaching work, helps them to engage their brains for optimal performance.

Getting creative can include distracting your mind by trying to solve a problem in an unconventional way. For instance, taking notes and creating a cartoon can be a productive means of distraction.

Keep healthy snacks available

You should always refrigerate perishable food in the fridge. If it’s out in the open, there’s more chance of it spoiling.

You should consider stocking the fridge or pantry with fresh fruits, vegetables, water and low sugar drinks. That way, it’s a little harder for your employees to give in to unhealthy cravings.

Drink water

If you’re going to work for 8+ hours every day, you’re going to want to stay hydrated and stay healthy.

Studies have shown that many Australians don’t drink enough water. Australian guidelines recommend adult males should drink 2.6 litres (roughly 10 cups) of plain water, milk and other drinks such as tea and coffee) per day, whilst adult women should have slightly less, at 2.1 litres/day (roughly 8 cups).

Skipping water while working can make you dehydrated and lower your motivation and productivity.

Wearing a mask when employees are sick
Wearing a mask when employees are sick

Benefits of a healthy workplace

There are a multitude of benefits both for individuals as well as the organisation, for having a healthy workplace. Some of the major benefits are listed below.

Whether you suffer from air pollution, noise pollution, chemicals in the workplace, people sharing your working space, mental health issues, mental health at work or other potential hazards, the physical environment you are in can impact your overall wellbeing and can affect you long-term.

As well as remembering to encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick, you need to use other known methods to improve the workplace generally and have a focus on a healthy environment for your team.

What are the benefits of having a healthy workspace?

  • increased job satisfaction
  • higher performance
  • improved health and wellbeing
  • lower absenteeism rates
  • greater productivity
  • increased individual and organisational resilience
  • less workplace injury and workers’ compensation claims

Increased job satisfaction

Without doubt, it is a well known fact that people generally like working in a healthy environment, and will enjoy increased job satisfaction when they do.

There is a big amount of research that shows that employees who enjoy their job are more productive, creative, and loyal.

As such, it is in your best interest to encourage your employees to leave work feeling happy, satisfied and fulfilled.

Higher performance

Working in a healthy and happy environment is much more productive. This is mainly because people have more energy and are able to work for longer. Plus, people are also happier and have greater positive feelings.

The cost of presenteeism to businesses also was 10 times higher than absenteeism. Absent workers cost employers around USD $150 billion per year, but those who came to work and were not fully productive cost USD $1,500 billion per year. (EHS Today)

Improved health and wellbeing

Working when unwell means that you end up sicker, and it affects your mental health as well. The end result is that this one unwell employee spreads it to others, and before you know it, half the team are sick.

Lower absenteeism rates

It may seem odd, however there have been studies that have shown that nipping an illness early means less time away in the longer term. Getting your team to encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick means that it is less likely these unwell employees will be away for longer periods of time.

Greater productivity

There is nothing that hurts productivity more than going to work when you are unwell, or being stressed and rundown. Employees should always stay home when they’re sick to ensure productivity stays high.

When you are run down, you can often feel lethargic or bored. One of the best ways to address this is by doing things that help stimulate your mind and engage your brain.

Increased individual and organisational resilience

There are numerous recent studies that have shown that a healthier workplace also encourages better resilience, not only in the individuals that are your employees, but also the organisation as a whole.

Less workplace injury and workers’ compensation claims

People working when they are unwell are more likely to have accidents, cause damage to property, equipment or themselves, and are more likely to suffer significant injuries. Having you encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick reduces the chances of claims and injuries.

In Conclusion

As you can see from the above, the cost of going to work sick, both for yourself as well as your colleagues and the organisation, is just not worth it. You need to get all your management team to encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick, including each other.

We’ve covered a lot in this article. To recap, we discussed;

Now you are fully aware of why you must encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick. It just makes good sense. All the best with it!

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