During Flu Season, Companies Should Consider Telecommuting to Combat "Presenteeism"
Last Updated: 10/10/06

During flu season, employers are increasingly concerned about the risk sick employees pose to the workplace. Flu season always brings absenteeism, but employees who come to work when they aren't feeling well may actually cost companies more than if they stayed home.

John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm in Chicago, said the problem escalates with a phenomenon called "presenteeism," where certain employees might be sick with the flu and come into work. "This poses a real risk, because then the stalwart, sick worker infects a host of others," Challenger said.

While the direct hit to the bottom line isn't immediately evident with presenteeism, there is the added problem of spreading illnesses to other employees who in turn either call in or come in sick.

In the 2005 Unscheduled Absence Survey conducted by CCH - is a leading provider of human resources and employment law information, 48 percent of employers surveyed report "presenteeism" is a problem in their organization. According to the findings, presenteeism is an issue for employers not only because of employees' lowered productivity, but because they make healthy workers sick. Of the companies surveyed, 22 percent of employers who thought presenteeism was a problem said that they allow employees to telecommute when they are sick.

According to Lori Rosen, a workplace analyst for CCH, "The idea of the 'hero worker' that manages to punch in for a full-day's work, despite illness, needs to be discouraged. Being in contact with contagious individuals jeopardizes the health and productivity of all employees. Employers need to emphasize to employees that while they need them at work, they first want a healthy workplace."

"The best a company can do is try to prevent the flu and other infectious diseases from spreading in the first place, and then to develop a sound contingency plan to implement in the event of an outbreak," Challenger said.

Challenger said that employers may want to use the flu season as an opportune time to promote telecommuting. "Set up a SWAT team of people, with representatives of each department, who can work from home when the flu strikes." He added that the telecommuter unit should be sent home the instant the flu strikes the workplace and be ready to take over all duties assigned to a department hit hard by the virus.

Jen Jorgenson, a spokesperson for the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Virginia, said companies may want to consider encouraging employees who feel they cannot stay away from the office when they are sick to telecommute. Rather than have them use their office computers and infect everyone else around them, Jorgenson explained that by telecommuting, these employees can continue to be productive without making others sick.

Telecommuting Can Help Maintain Productivity During The Flu Season
Telecommuting has proven effective for permanent work from home arrangements, and it also provides a needed solution in a variety of special circumstances of work interruptions such as: severe weather, power outages, transportation disruptions, as well as flu seasons.

Having a telecommuting plan for work continuity is an effective, efficient and practical strategy serving both short-term and unplanned situations, which minimizes the impact of particular workflow interruptions.

Tips for Employers
Bad weather conditions, injuries and illnesses seem to be times when employees get the chance to telecommute— not necessarily by choice or true desire to telecommute, but as the only way to get their work done. Even if you prefer your staffers not telecommute on a regular basis, it could be an option for a variety of special circumstances including:
  • An employee with a minor illness, such as a cold, would be better off working at home.
  • A deadline is pressing and the employee can be more productive working at home.
  • Weather, traffic conditions or personal appointments make it smart for an employee to work at home for a day or more.
Among the steps employers can take to help ensure work productivity and minimize unplanned disruptions:
  • Plan ahead. Employers can begin to make preparations that will keep their offices productive, even when they have to "go virtual" in the face of manmade or natural disasters.
  • Determine what provisions employees need -- and already have -- at home to prepare them to telecommute.
  • Set a good example: Sick managers should be urged not to show up at the workplace.
  • Help employees prepare a workspace at home by providing some basic essentials -- to create a "telecommuting kit" to keep at homewhich includes:
    • list of important phone numbers and email addresses, including coworkers' and clients', if appropriate (make sure they have your number, too)
    • overnight courier envelopes
    • copies of work on disk (be sure software is compatible); and
    • stationary with company letterhead.
  • Set guidelines and communicate them to employees:
    • What temporary situations are approved for telecommuting;
    • Procedures for accessing company intranets and networks from home;
    • Employee/Supervisor Communication guidelines - stating that it is the responsibility of the employee to ensure communication back to the supervisor is done at appropriate intervals (or as designated by the supervisor).

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