Infectious Diseases in the Workplace


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Contagious illnesses in the workplace can harm productivity and quickly spread among staff. Knowing what the risks are and having policies in place to reduce the spread can improve company efficiency.

Article 5 Minutes
Infectious Diseases in the Workplace

When there are several people working in one place day in and day out, it's easy for germs to spread. This means that illness can affect a large proportion of your workforce very quickly, which can harm productivity.

5% to 20% of the US population ends up catching the flu at some point throughout the year, while other illnesses like the common cold and stomach flu are also common. While an illness may only be affecting one employee to begin with, this can soon lead to several members of staff becoming sick.

Not only will this result in a lower standard of work being completed - as well as less getting done - it also increases the risk that others will come into contact with the contagion.


The impact of absenteeism during flu season

Every year, flu season brings an increase in the spread of seasonal influenza viruses, most commonly in the fall and winter months. In the United States, for example, flu activity normally peaks between December and February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The inevitable consequence of this seasonal increase in flu cases for businesses is a higher risk of absenteeism. Research by the CDC revealed that during the 2017-18 flu season in the US, there was a significant increase in the number of people taking time off work.

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Analysis of workplace absenteeism between October 2017 and September 2018 showed a sharp increase in sick days in November and a peak in January, which was significantly higher than the averages recorded in the previous five flu seasons. Health-related absenteeism was particularly high among workers aged between 45 and 64 years.

Learn more: 3 Ways Employee Absence is a Nightmare for HR

Sickness absence can have various financial repercussions for businesses, such as:

  • Paying workers in line with your sick pay policy when they're not able to work
  • Potential costs of having to find temporary replacements for staff who are sick
  • Diminished productivity for other workers who have to take on responsibilities of colleagues who are absent
  • Risks to client relationships if deadlines are missed or standards drop because key team members are off

Considering just how serious and wide-ranging the impact of absenteeism can be, it's important that you take action to protect the business during flu season.

According to the CDC, the most effective methods to prevent the spread of flu include vaccination, routinely cleaning frequently touched surfaces, and encouraging people to maintain basic healthy habits such as regularly washing their hands and covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze.

There are also dedicated procedures and checks you can put in place to minimize the risk of workplace illness and reduce absenteeism.

How to manage infectious diseases impacting the workforce

Addressing the issue of contagious diseases and ensuring employees know the best course of action if they are taken ill can help reduce the spread and the impact on overall productivity and efficiency.

1. Carry out a risk assessment

As well as the chance of injury, your workplace risk assessment should also cover the risk of illness in your office. This includes a look at the ways that illnesses can be spread, whether there are any particularly vulnerable people within your organization - such as pregnant women or individuals with serious conditions - and what can be done to prevent infection in order to put controls in place.

This can better prepare you when it comes to informing staff of policies and creating rules aimed at reducing the impact of contagious diseases in the workplace.

2. Create an illness policy

Having an illness policy in place ensures that staff have access to relevant information on reducing the spread of infection and what to do in the case of illness. This will help to protect others from sickness and work to keep your company productive.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers guidance for employers on what information this policy should include, such as:

  • Promoting the benefits of vaccination during flu season
  • Information on hygiene best practices
  • Workplace cleanliness
  • Encouraging those who are sick to stay at home and reduce the risk of the infection spreading

Including this with your injury policy will ensure that every member of staff, both new and existing, are aware of the steps they should be taking.

3. Encourage remote working

While staff should know that they are able to take a day off for sickness and what the process is in this instance, there may be times that they still feel well enough to work despite being ill. In this instance, they should be encouraged to make the most of remote working arrangements where possible so as not to infect anyone else, especially during the current coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, which has seen hundreds of thousands of cases worldwide.

This will help to avoid more members of staff from becoming ill while not having to deal with the issue of covering workloads. However, you should ensure there is also a policy in place for working from home while sick to ensure that employees understand what is still expected of them.

TLNT advises that employers inform staff which illnesses might involve working from home, which ones will require you to come into the office and in what instances you can take a sick day. When staff do work from home, you should also ensure there is a way of tracking time their work activities and also provide options for quick communication.

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