Managing sickness in the workplace is a tricky issue. On one side, running a business is impossible without employees. On the other side, people do get sick and shouldn’t come to work while ill. What can be done to ease the strain of managing sickness in the workplace?
Defining the Problem
The first step towards solving the problem is to understand the true nature of the problem. Is the central issue that employees are calling off sick when they aren’t? Is the problem that employees who never call off feel abused by the repeated absences of others? Is the problem that it is hard to run a business without sufficient staffing? I propose that most managers and co-workers are annoyed by the first two, while the actual problem is the latter. If the goal of managing is ‘making things work,’ then it is a distraction to worry about why people are absent. The most effective way to manage workplace sickness is to control the controllable and to not worry about the uncontrollable. Managing sickness in the workplace is not about controlling employees, it is about minimizing the impact of sickness on your business.
For illustration, I offer the following choice. You can hire one of these people. Their performance at work is equal. One person gets a cold three times a year and calls off work three days each time for a total of 9 days missed. The other person, through good fortune, rarely/never gets sick. She calls off one day per year. It is obvious – you should hire the second person. She will be more effective at helping to run the business.
Now, a philosophical curve-ball. The second employee uses her one unscheduled absence every year to watch movies and take a bubble bath – not because she is sick! She still has only one absence per year, but she’s not being fair! She may have even lied to you! What to do? If you’re starting to think about how you might require proof of illness, stop! While this is ingrained in most manager’s minds, it is non-productive thinking. Why? Because a manager’s job is ‘making things work’. It’s easier to make things work with employees who miss one day per year than nine – even if their reason is bogus.
So, the problem with managing sickness in the workplace is minimizing the impact of employee absence. This should be the point of any rule, discipline, policy, or conversation you have about the issue.
Why Employees Shouldn’t Come To Work Sick
If you are mindful of the goal – ‘making things work’, it is easy to see why employees should never work when sick. First, most sickness absences are from colds or flu. If someone comes to work sick, you risk the entire workplace catching an avoidable illness. Better to do without one employee for a day or two than all of your employees for a day or two. Worse yet, what if the infected employee makes you sick? It’s much easier to do without one employee for short time than it is to manage a business while sick or from home or to find a management replacement. Lastly, if your employees have customer or client contact, it leaves a poor impression on the public to be ‘served’ by someone who is sick. That’s gross. There is no long term benefit from employees working while sick. There is only misery and woe.
Managing Sickness In The Workplace By Reducing Illness
Wouldn’t it be nice if your employees just didn’t get sick? Even if your business is not health related, nothing says that you can’t help your employees stay healthy. In addition to not allowing employees to work when sick, consider other ways to help your workers to stay well. Many people still believe old wive’s tales about what makes the sick. Consider starting the Autumn season with a prevention program. This is a good time to make it clear that you expect employees to stay home if they are sick. Collect information on where cold and flu germs live, how they are commonly transmitted, and how to avoid catching the virus. Tell employees how and when to get a flu shot (especially if your workplace health insurance will compensate.)
For a small investment, you can put together a ‘sickness prevention kit.’ It should contain literature about avoiding communicable illness. Consider also putting in hand sanitizer, zinc lozenges, saline spray, echinacea, and even latex gloves and a face mask. While the last might seem over the top, consider that your employees have children or will be spending time at a doctor’s office – two places thick with illness where I would certainly wear a mask if I had one! If half of your employees use them one time and half of those uses prevent one bout of illness, the investment nets a great return.
At the same time, examine whether your workplace is a breeding ground. How often are door handles, railings, telephones and keyboards sanitized? Implement a system. Does your heating system dry the air, making nasal tissues easier targets? Bring in potted plants, a humidifier, or pans of water. Do your employees handle money regularly? Schedule breaks for hand washing and provide gummy stuff to prevent them from unconsciously licking their fingers. Have clear instructions for dealing with customers who are obviously sick. While you don’t want to alienate even inconsiderate customers, you also don’t want employees to get sick. At the least, workers should know how far away to stand and wash their hands immediately after exposure. Consider a contest to ‘catch’ employees touching their faces – a common way that germs enter the system. At the least, it will make them aware of how much they touch their face and how ‘dangerous’ it is.
Because no one likes to be sick, your employees are willing parties in a prevention scheme. If you don’t have time to organize an information pack, ask each employee to research one proven prevention strategy so they can build their own packet. Even if you allow them to spend a half hour or hour of ‘work time’ to do this, this is easily balanced by a small reduction in absences.
What To Do With Employees Who Are Absent Too Much
The definition of ‘too much’ is flexible, but important to define. The parameters must be the same for every employee to avoid discrimination. Most companies have a standard amount of sick time allowed. That’s a good place to start. For part time hourly employees, the allowed absences are often not defined. In this situation, it’s best to have a percentage spelled out of scheduled days vs. sick days. Consider an employee who is scheduled 40 shifts per month and calls off once per month vs. an employee who works only Saturdays and calls off once per month. While their number of absences is the same, their attendance is different.
Once you have defined the acceptable parameters for absence, it’s objective and obvious who your ‘problem employees’ are. Keeping the goal in mind (making things work), these people should be told about the problem as soon as possible while they are at work. It’s much more productive to approach the overall issue of absence than it is to argue on the phone when someone says they are sick. If you argue on the phone with them, they think that you are angry at their illness. If you sit down while they are at work and look at the ‘big picture’ of their attendance, they understand your focus. That’s productive. It’s ugly and unfair to get mad at someone for getting sick; it’s practical and understandable to show how repeated absences are interfering with running a business. Remember, it really doesn’t matter why they called off, it only matters that you can’t do your job without employees. In other words, never discuss with an employee whether they were sick or whether they were sick enough to stay home – only discuss their attendance and work performance. One is productive, the other is a waste of time.
What Not To Do When Employees Call Off
The phone rings. It’s one of your staff – they say they can’t come to work because they are sick. What should you do?
Examples from real life of what you should not do:
One manager told a subordinate that she was to report to work and the manager would decide if she was sick enough to stay home. Employees are adults and it is not for managers to decide if they are ‘sick enough.’
Countless managers have told their hourly wage employees that a doctor’s note would be required to avoid disciplinary action. Doctors hand out excuses like candy, co-pays are expensive for low wage employees, and colds or uncomplicated flu don’t require medical treatment.
Other managers cajole the employee and guilt them into coming to work anyway. Harassing sick people is just mean. Plus, they may infect other workers.
One time, I’d been in a car accident and was in alarming pain – as I was the opening manager, I did go to work. I called my supervisor on arrival and explained that I wouldn’t be able to work because I needed to get to a doctor quickly. He showed up two hours later and told me that they didn’t have enough staff so I couldn’t leave. The result – I further damaged my neck by working 10 hours and was confined to bed for 3 days. Not only was I in pain and bored out of my mind, but my workplace had to find replacements for 3 days instead of one. For the sake of staffing our business for one day, my unwise manager paid by being understaffed for three. And after 5 years of perfect attendance and 70 hour weeks, I found a new job that allowed me to be a human.
What To Do When Employees Call Off
The only acceptable response when an employee calls off sick is “Thank you for calling. I hope you feel better. Please let us know ASAP if you will need to stay home tomorrow. Let me know if there is something I can do.“
There are really good reasons to have a standard response when employees call off. First, a call off is stressful; emotional responses are rarely productive. Having a set response will stop people from letting their emotions take over. Second, when employees call off, they are (often) ill. They don’t benefit from guilt or being yelled at – and neither do their managers. It doesn’t change anything and just makes everyone miserable. Third, even if the caller is a ‘problem employee’ there is a better time to confront them – when they aren’t prepared for confrontation and when they are sitting in front of you. If their pattern of calling off is problematic, that problem needs to be addressed as a performance issue not a single incident. Such a problem has developed over time, and waiting a day to confront it won’t hurt anything.
What if someone lies to you?
No one likes to be lied to, but ‘fake’ call offs are not preventable. They are also less common than many believe. Many employees will say they are sick rather than tell you something personal. Maybe they just found out their spouse is cheating, maybe they have to have a colonoscopy, maybe they are suffering from severe depression or handling a family crisis. An employee once called to tell me she was on her way but her dog had just died and that’s why she was late. She could have lied. As she could barely talk, I told her to turn around and go home – it was the right, humane thing to do and also the practical thing. What would it look like to my customers to be served by an employee with puffy, red eyes and a stuffy nose? How productive would she be?
Sick time is a misnomer. It is perfectly valid to call off work when distraught. It is also valid to not want to tell a manager the intimate details of your life (do you really want to hear about your secretary’s needle biopsy?) I propose that when employees call off, you not worry about why they are calling off. It really doesn’t matter – and requiring them to explain themselves only forces them to lie when they don’t have a communicable illness.
If you find out that someone has lied to you, I recommend that you try to let it go. If you can’t, confront the lie. Explain that you don’t like to be lied to because it puts everything they say in doubt. Tell them that if they are calling off for personal reasons then they should say that. Focus on that person’s attendance. Is it generally good – on a par with peers and within set parameters? If so, there is nothing to discuss. If their attendance is poor, then discuss their poor attendance – because that is the issue.
Remember to spend your energy controlling what you can and not worry about the rest.
Managing sickness in the workplace is tricky, but not impossible. Keep your goal in mind, respect that there are humans working for you, educate and communicate with your employees, always look at the long term, and when all else fails, hire more people.