Achoo! Bless you. Cough cough.
The symphony of flu season is in full crescendo. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates flu season typically peaks during January or February in the United States, the 2012/2013 season has already garnered much attention, starting earlier than in many recent years.
Flu season can have a drastic impact on the workplace. Absenteeism reaches a high, as individuals are either out sick due to personal illnesses or caring for children and other family members with the virus. Additionally, it seems that when one person in an office gets sick, it won’t be long before others also come down with something. Productivity may suffer as a result of employees missing work unexpectedly, resulting in bottlenecked projects or missed deadlines. Individuals who remain healthy may experience stress or burnout from heavier workloads as they take on the work of coworkers who are out of the office.
During periods when illness is prevalent, flexible work policies can dramatically reduce the negative impact of employee sickness. Viruses and bacteria tend to spread through the office like wildfire. When individuals are in close proximity, it is easy for germs to spread. Often, employees are encouraged to stay home if they feel there is any chance they are infected with the flu or another virus, in order to prevent others from catching the same illness. However, many employees do not want to use their sick days or paid time off, so they disregard the message and come to work despite showing certain symptoms. Implementing a flexible work policy will decrease the likelihood of flu or cold outbreaks in the office, as employees will likely be more willing to work remotely rather than “waste” a sick day.
When it comes to minor colds or simply feeling a little under the weather, employees sometimes want to work, but the only factor truly holding them back from going in is the daunting trek to get to the office. If given the opportunity to work from home, many employees would take this option rather than taking a sick day. Productivity would be less likely to decrease as a result, especially given the fact that 53 percent of working adults believe they get more work done when they have the ability to work from home1, resulting from decreased interruptions and commuting times, among other factors.
Flexible work policies also contribute to the prevention of illness. When schedules are malleable, work/life balance increases, reducing stress that results from trying to balance personal and professional obligations. Since stress takes a toll on the body and could contribute to illness, reducing stress is an important way to keep employees healthy. Adjustable schedules also allow team members to schedule check-ups or appointments to maintain their health or get the flu shot, thus contributing to a reduced chance of spreading the virus. People may also get more sleep, exercise more, or participate in activities they enjoy outside work, further contributing to prevention, as well as reducing burnout which may result from heavier workloads.
Apart from simply reducing the spread of illness, flexible work schedules also promote the attraction and retention of top talent. According to research conducted by Mom Corps, a professional staffing firm, 61 percent of employees think variable work options are important when searching for a new job, and 45 percent of adults are willing to give up some percentage of their salary for more flexibility. Thus adjustable work policies are a good decision not only when risk of illness is high, but all year.
Flexibility will be different depending on the needs of each particular organization. It’s important to examine how different work arrangements can function for each person and to maintain fairness when crafting protocols. With the right policies in place, flexibility can positively impact business outcomes, despite extenuating circumstances such as the flu. Flexibility could provide the perfect “medication” for the effects of illness in the workplace.
1Mom Corps 2012/2013 survey, “2012 Labor Day Survey”