Flu Season and Productivity

It’s no secret that this year’s flu season started earlier and has been more severe than in years past.  Companies with full-time, salaried employees typically offer some form of paid sick leave and can usually attest to the benefits of having such a policy in place.  But a lot of small business owners, and companies in service industries (restaurants, salons, etc.), often employ part-time or hourly employees and do not offer any type of paid sick leave.  Given the severity of this year’s flu epidemic, the conversation regarding mandatory paid sick leave has gained a lot of attention across the nation.  While there are many advocates for having such a policy in place, there are many individuals who do not support such a requirement.  With the overall economy still struggling to recover and families still pinching pennies to get by, many business owners feel they are in ‘survival mode’ and cannot afford to offer paid sick leave to non-exempt employees.  Thus, their employees are often forced to ‘suck it up’ and show up for work while battling an illness.  But which cost is greater: offering paid sick leave or risking the health of all employees when one works through an illness?

Research has shown that the cost of offering paid sick leave can be extremely low for employers.  In their Economic Policy Institute report, “Paid Sick Days: Measuring the small cost for New York City businesses”, Elise Gloud and Doug Hall discuss a study conducted in New York City in 2011 which showed that employers who decided to offer 5 paid sick days per year (who previously offered no paid sick leave) could see an average cost of 0.12-0.92% of sales, assuming all employees used the maximum number of sick days available each year.  However, the study also showed that, on average, employees only used 1.5-3.0 sick days/year.  This would mean, on average, the cost of offering paid sick leave could actually only cost an employer 0.06-0.54% of sales, depending on the industry.

By comparison, presenteeism (the act of an employee attending work when sick and performing at a lower than normal level) has been said to cost businesses in the US nearly $150 billion dollars each year.  While this includes other illnesses besides the flu (such as depression, back pain, arthritis, migraines, and allergies), it would seem the cost of allowing employees to come to work sick is far greater than the cost of offering paid sick leave.

But what if, for whatever reason, employers simply can’t offer paid time off for illness to employees?  What steps can be taken to prevent widespread illness in the office?  If employees are able to telecommute while they are sick, they may be able to continue working but avoid close contact with coworkers or customers.  If not, offering hand sanitizer or surgical masks could help employers promote a healthier work environment.  They can also use posters or flyers to share simple ways to prevent the spreading of germs.

Regardless of the steps an employer takes, this year’s flu season has made it obvious that having no plan in place could lead to serious (and costly) issues for the entire organization.  It’s better to be prepared in advance than get hit with an outbreak that disrupts productivity for an unknown length of time.