by Shayne Thomas
07 Jan 2021
Support Your Employees Whenever They Get Sick
3 tips for encouraging workplace health and wellness, beyond sick leave alone
Unless the snow in many parts of the country over the last month or so wasn’t indication enough, it goes without saying that we are well into the throes of winter. And this year, not only do we have the lingering COVID-19 pandemic to worry about, but we’ve also got the double whammy of flu season riding its coattails. People are getting sick left and right. So as an employer, what can you do to ensure that your employees can prioritize their speedy recovery?
For obvious reasons, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this question up, front, and center. But that shouldn’t have been the case. You should care about your employees’ health and wellness just as much as you care about their productivity and success.
Unfortunately, in a country like the United States, founded on the virtues of the ‘Protestant work ethic,’ we are taught, from a very young age, to believe that hard work pays off. And of course, it does. However, not when you feel like you’ve been run over by a school bus and, essentially, become a walking contagion around the workplace (that is, when we’re all finally allowed to go back to the office again!). The only way to get better is to slow down, hydrate, get plenty of rest, and, if your issue is quite serious, go see a doctor.
The same rules apply to long-term illnesses as well. Whether some of your employees become part of the COVID “long-haulers” group, whose symptoms last for weeks or even months, or battle their way through a grueling cancer treatment, they are no good to your business in the long-term if you don’t offer them the time and space to get back to feeling 100%.
Look at it another way: If you support your employees through their ups and downs—including illness of any severity—they will likely go the extra mile for you. After all, as humans, we like knowing that someone’s got our back. Employers should step up and be that “someone.”
It’s time to make employee health and wellness a priority
Paid sick leave is not a revolutionary idea. In fact, many businesses offer it as an employee perk. The downside is that many employees refuse—or rather, feel guilty—taking advantage of it. Of course, no one wants to be seen as the team slacker for not “grinning and bearing it” when sick, but the difference between staying home (and even working remotely) when contagious and going into the office is a matter of how many other people will end up getting sick as a result.
And given how the COVID-19 pandemic has torn through the world and rendered the workplace almost a thing of the past, why would anyone, much less businesses, want to unleash any sort of plague onto others—when a day or two of rest at home can make all the difference?
Remember, you put your sick leave policies in place for a reason. Now it's your time to reinforce them, while also letting employees know that they shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to get better. But the buck doesn't stop there: Fostering a company culture around health and wellness means treating health as more than just an employee perk. Here are a few ideas:
1. Empower employees to stand up for their own health
This may sound fairly common sense at face value, but no one should ever be forced to go into work or even login from home when sick. Unfortunately, some employers and managers are less tolerant of employees taking sick time than others. But sick leave policies exist for a reason—and should be enforced uniformly across a company and not at the whim of managers.
Unfortunately, and sometimes out of sheer guilt, employees will save up sick days for when they get really sick (whatever that means). The truth is, sick leave shouldn’t be thought of as a slush fund at all or even something you can get paid back at the end of the year as a bonus of sorts, if unused. It should be exactly what it is: time off to rest up and get better.
That’s why it’s time to change the dynamic about what “sick leave” is and how employees can take advantage of those policies without feeling guilty. To do this, you must encourage them to take ownership of their health, keep track of symptoms, and use all resources available to them via their benefits to get medical help when it’s needed. Then, when someone truly gets sick and has a viable doctor’s note to prove it, employers must heed the medical advice given and not pressure employees to come back to work sooner than they are physically able to.
While this is a very ‘checks and balances’ approach to sick leave policies, it’s what they were designed to do in the first place. Of course, it won’t completely avoid those times when employees call in sick after the big company party—because, let’s face it, we’ve all been there, to—but it will force employees to prioritize their own health above everything else and, perhaps for once, not feel guilty about it.
2. Protect employees with chronic illnesses from discrimination
There is a big difference between someone getting over the flu or the common cold—or heck, even COVID nowadays—and someone living with a chronic illness that can flare up unexpectedly, yet regularly enough, and be quite debilitating.
For some employers, this is like walking the tightrope. At what point do you say enough is enough? You don’t. I would venture a guess that if your employees didn’t have to deal with that chronic illness, they wouldn’t voluntarily raise their hand to be put through that ongoing pain and suffering. And you certainly shouldn’t add any more pain and suffering to their plate.
You need to figure out how to work around it. Part of this requires transparency on the employee’s part around their illness and their unique needs to combat it. Part of this also requires acceptance on behalf of the employer and policies in place to avoid employees with chronic illnesses from being discriminated against or given fewer opportunities to excel in their careers because they happen to work from home more often than other team members.
But newsflash, if 2020 taught us one thing, it’s that working from home is not the great destroyer to productivity that way too many businesses once thought it to be. We have living proof that remote working can get the job done. So in these cases, if need be, figure out a flexible work arrangement with these employees that can both cater to their unique health-related needs and keep them productive and engaged when away from the office.
Obviously, I’m speaking in broad strokes here. Every case is going to be a little bit different. But the point that should be ringing loud and clear is that there’s always a solution that can work in the best interests of both your business and your employees.
3. Adopt smart return-to-work policies
Truth be told, this is now very much top-of-mind because of COVID-19. As vaccines begin to roll out and testing continues firing on all cylinders, many businesses are thinking about how to make it safe for employees to return to the office.
But what criteria to use? Proof of vaccination? Negative COVID-19 test? Strict social distancing policies? Enhanced cleaning protocols? There’s not a one-size-fits-all. Different businesses are going to face different challenges in bringing employees back to the workplace in full force.
Then after the hysteria of COVID-19 finally dies down, it’s important to think about what “return to work” means after someone’s sick with a cold, flu, or something else infectious.
This pandemic has made it clear just how quickly a virus can spread from one person to another. Hopefully, in the future, we can learn from this experience and take the necessary precautions to ensure a safe workplace at all times—whether during a pandemic or not.
Make supporting employee health your New Year’s resolution
It’s truly hard to talk about employee health right now without COVID-19 becoming the center of attention. But the truth is, once the world seizes control over the pandemic, your employees will still have many reasons to take you up on your offer for sick leave. It’s important to remember that those policies exist to give employees the space and time they need to feel better—and avoid contaminating the entire office.
Everyone’s already a bit on edge about personal health right now. And there’s a good chance this trend will continue for a while longer. That’s why it’s your time to shine as an employer, to help your employees see just how much their health and wellness matters to your business. So take a moment to make employee health and wellness a top priority now and well into the future. After all, healthier employees are happier employees, and happier employees are a lot more likely to stick by your side for the long haul.