Keep Sick Employees Home During Flu Season

Traditionally, employee absenteeism has been employers’ main concern during the annual flu season. This year, however, employers are being urged by federal agencies to wage war against a different potential trend: employees coming in sick.


Why is the government worried about this? “The workplace may act as a ‘point of spread,’ where employees can easily spread flu to their fellow employees as well as to others in the community,” explains the federal government’s comprehensive flu website. U.S. officials are therefore urging employers to actively encourage employees to stay home at the first sign of flu symptoms.


The latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ask employers to tell employees to stay home if they are sick with the flu, until at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever (100° F or above) or signs of a fever (have chills, feel very warm, have a flushed appearance, or are sweating). This should be determined without the use of fever-reducing medicines (any medicine that contains ibuprofen or acetaminophen).


Staying home when sick sounds like common sense advice that should be easy enough for most workers to follow. And yet, there are a number of reasons why they don’t, including:

  • fear of falling behind or missing deadlines;

  • reluctance to burden co-workers who might not be prepared to cover their work for them;

  • fear of looking like a “wimp” to bosses and co-workers;

  • pressure from supervisors or company culture to show up for work no matter what;

  • unwillingness to use up accrued sick days or take unpaid time off; or even

  • desire to escape a germ-filled home environment filled with sick family members.

So what can you do?

  • Review your company’s policies to make sure there are no provisions that unduly pressure sick employees to report to work (e.g., absenteeism policies that say employees who use up their accrued sick time may be subject to discipline, even if they have a doctor’s note).

  • Send sick employees home. Acknowledge the employee’s commitment, and stress that the directive to go home isn’t disciplinary in nature but that you’re looking out for everyone’s best interests.

  • Make sure executives, managers, and supervisors do not exert pressure on workers to come into work while sick; tell them they are also expected to lead by example and stay home when they are sick.

  • Encourage all departments to cross-train staff, so employees will be able to cover for absent colleagues.

  • Allow sick workers to work from home, if they are able and they choose to do so.

To aid you in making it crystal clear to workers and managers that they are not welcome in the workplace if they are sick with the flu, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has published a new employer toolkit: Preparing for the Flu: A Communication Toolkit for Businesses and Employers. Among the available tools are letter/e-mail templates, such as the If You Are Not Feeling Well template, that you can customize by using your organization’s official stationery or e-mail template, inserting the name and contact information of someone employees can reach for flu questions, adding the signature line of the owner, president, etc.


Another downloadable tool to help you stop sick employees in their tracks: a poster that you can hang at all building entrances, identifying common flu symptoms and clearly instructing employees who have any symptoms to “tell supervisor and stay home, except to get medical care.”


More Stringent Controls

If flu conditions become more severe than currently anticipated, the government recommends that employers consider adding more aggressive measures to keep sick employees out of the workplace, including the following.

  • Conduct active screening of employees when they arrive at work. You have the right to ask all employees about symptoms they might’ve experienced during the previous 24 hours (i.e., fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache, tiredness, diarrhea, vomiting). Workers who have experienced any symptoms should be asked to go home immediately.

  • Extend the time that sick employees must stay home to at least seven days. People who are still sick after seven days should continue to stay home until at least 24 hours after symptoms have gone away, even if they feel better sooner.