Flu Season: How to Get Your Employees to Call In Sick

flu season sick policies

It's 6am on the day you're expected at the office for that critical project for your boss's boss. You shuffle to the shower when you're struck by the unmistakable sign that your turn with the miserable bug that's been going around has arrived.

What do you do?

A. Go back to bed

B. Go to work -- you can't let your boss's boss down

It's a good bet that such circumstances divide people between the two answers, with a third contingent emphatically shouting, "DO NOT bring your nasty germs anywhere near me or our office!"

The Real Ailment of Sick Policies

And that, my friends, is the real sick-at-work dilemma. It's not being thoroughly inconsiderate by sharing the germs (as some people might think); and it's not being, for lack of a better word, a weenie for skipping out on an important responsibility (as others might suggest). It's the fact that the answer depends on who you're dealing with and the job you're expected to do that day. What if the same situation came up with the company CEO... or on your second day of work?

A moving target may be one part of the problem. Generations may be another. Younger people raised on a healthy work/life ethic have a different outlook on sick time than those who came of age in the 1980s when sick days were verboten. Back then, physical presence equaled commitment, and at many workplaces, you did not call in sick...ever. Some might even recall late-afternoon "commitment checks," to see who was actually in house.

Those lessons are hard to unlearn and they pave the way for conflict between those who embrace sick days... and those who fear them.

The Cure for your Sick Problem

The cure for your ailing sick policies starts with your culture. The employee handbook may say "take a sick day," but it's empty if in practice, individual frontline managers are penalizing people for calling out. "The people at the top can agree to all of this all day long," says one executive, "but if middle managers aren't consistently amplifying the culture message, it's all moot."

There's always going to be some gray area. But you can minimize the confusion by making the company philosophy crystal clear:

Communicate Organizationally

BenefitsPro wisely advises managers and employees to get everyone up-to-date on sick-leave and telecommuting policies. The arrival of flu season is a good time to send out reminders reiterating both the official policies and the cultural stance.

Communicate Departmentally

Official sick policies don't address nuances like the situations above. For that managers and employees need to have candid conversation ahead of time. People need to hear - in words - that you don't want them to spread germs, and that calling out will not hurt their careers.

Be Consistent

Trust employees to know what's "sick enough" without judging. Be direct with support. Otherwise, you're back to square one.

Create a Contingency Plan

Discuss what happens if a key person is out. Not just broadly - but very specifically, with steps for pinch hitting. Planning for such occasions with real, actual steps means not only do people feel they have permission to call out, but also the ability to do so.

Don't worry that a no-germs policy will cause employees to abuse the privilege. Remember - you've hired for culture. And the few who take advantage will quickly make themselves known. Good employees will move heaven and earth to get the job done.

"Nowadays, work can be done from anywhere, so staying home should have less of a stigma," says Dan Henry. "Even if needed on a big project, work can still get done - assuming the person feels well enough to do it."

"It's a good practice," he adds, "and keeping the germs away from the office is an added bonus."

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.