November is a great month to live and work in Wisconsin. There are plenty of sporting events to watch (football of course), plenty of fall festivals to attend, and perfect Goldilocks-style weather. Your office staff might also be feeling energized from some much-needed late-summer vacation. Unfortunately, November also heralds the beginnings of flu season, which peaks in January or February, but can run all the way through May. What does this mean for your law practice? Let’s find out.
Business Costs of Workplace Illness
According to flu.gov, each flu season, 111 million workdays are lost in the United States, which amounts to approximately $7 billion lost in sick days and productivity. And that’s just the flu. When you take into account colds and other illnesses common to workplaces, some loss estimates are in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year. In short, sick days hurt business.
We lawyers are tough, though (at least in our minds), and we often make money by the hour. So, to limit our losses, we often try and “push through” illnesses or even insist that we aren’t really sick. For some lawyers, staying home is something that happens only when we literally can’t get out of bed. “If we (and everyone else in our offices) just come to work and do our jobs,” the thinking goes, “we can limit our productivity losses, right?” Wrong.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. The flu, like many other office illnesses, is a viral, contagious respiratory infection that is easily spread through coughs, sneezes, talking (spit talkers are, unfortunately, quite common), and surface touching. I won’t delve too deep into the virology of the various types of influenza strains, but it is worth knowing that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person can spread the flu to people up to six feet away, and infect others from one day before developing symptoms to up to one week after they go away (children can be contagious for even longer). Suffice it to say, if you come to work sick, chances are you will get someone else sick, that person will infect someone else, and so on.
For most of us, this isn’t news. And yet, according to the 2013 Economics of Law Practice in Wisconsin survey, 43 percent of practices don’t offer paid time off for illness for their lawyers and other staff members. For those that do, the number of days is often quite limited, which leads employees to hoard the sick days in case they “really need them” later, or the days are part of general paid time off, which leads to the days being saved for planned vacations. Either way, the results are the same: employees who don’t have enough paid illness leave come to work contagious.
Tison Rhine is the advisor to the State Bar of Wisconsin Law Office Management Assistance Program (Practice411™). Reach him at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6012, or by email.
Even when sick employees do have ample available sick time, they are often discouraged from using it, usually for the ironic business reasoning mentioned above. The reasoning is ironic because the official policies and culture that encourage workers to push through illness often actually reduce, rather than increase, overall productivity. This is not just because the contagious nature of these illnesses causes them to spread through offices, but also because the people who try and “work through” illnesses often take longer to recover. This, in turn, can lead to later absenteeism and also to prolonged periods of diminished productivity while at work.
Known sometimes as “presentism,” sick employees may be physically present, but not fully functioning. It is quite common to see entire practice groups or even whole offices getting sick at the same time or in close succession. Sure, everyone may be at the office, but no one is doing their best work.
Tips for Promoting Better Health
Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this, and not every office operates in this way. Let’s look at what you can do to be one of the offices that promotes employee health.
Get (and Provide) Flu Shots. This is really a no-brainer. Not only does influenza lead to productivity losses, but it also is a serious illness, associated with an average of 200,000 hospitalizations and as many as 49,000 deaths per year. An annual seasonal flu vaccine is by far the best way to reduce the chances that you will get the flu and spread it to others. Get one. And, if you are an employer, offer flu shots to all your employees. There are plenty of corporate seasonal-flu-shot providers out there. Find one.
Have a Good Sick-leave Policy. If you don’t offer a paid sick-leave policy, people will come into work sick and make other people sick. It’s that simple. You might only be thinking of the costs of paying employees to stay home, but a good sick-leave policy is well worth it in terms of overall productivity and employee satisfaction. I recommend a policy that gives each employee a minimum of 10 days paid sick leave per year, in addition to any other paid time off. Vacation days should be used for vacation (which is good for health, too); if you only offer general paid time off, employees will save their precious days for a real vacation and, you guessed it, come into work sick.
Send Sick People Home. Can you force someone to go home sick? Yes, you can (at least for common conditions such as colds and influenza). Should you? Yes, you should. In fact, in the case of a serious contagion like pandemic flu, you could be liable if you allow a sick person to come to work and expose other employees. For most illnesses, the CDC recommends staying home until at least 24 hours after a fever ends. You should, of course, avoid prying into employees’ medical conditions, but you can insist on a health-care provider’s note stating that the employee is healthy enough to return to work. Also, as with any human resources issue, make sure you apply this policy consistently to all employees.
Allow Employees (and Yourself) to Work From Home. The good thing about law work is that generally, you either get it done or you don’t. Work product often takes the form of clear deliverables, so there is little need to worry that people who say they are working from home are really goofing off. So, if you or your staff can get a little work done while home sick, great. Even if you don’t manage to get much done, you will at least be recovering faster and not getting others sick.
And, if you are in fact goofing off, perhaps by going to that fall festival or November football game, but still getting the work done, more power to you.