Last week I was slowed in my tracks by a mid-summer head cold. One afternoon I left my desk to seek relief by taking a short nap; I woke up on the couch three hours later. With the luxury of working from home and a schedule devoid of speaking requirements I did not get enough work done but I also avoided spreading my germs to co-workers.
My personal approach to illness had always sent me into the work world unless I was felled by a fever or other painfully obvious symptoms. The common cold is treated with an army of over-the-counter drugs, throat lozenges, tea and chicken soup. I’m rethinking the wisdom of this protocol.
Researchers call it presenteeism; employees showing up sick at work because they think no one else can do their job, or they fear discipline. Other people can do my work and I never compiled a poor attendance record; I just figured I could slog through. When you walk into a meeting carrying a tissue box with a coordinating red nose you are more likely to receive sympathy than extra assignments.
Now I know that showing up can extend the duration of my own symptoms and spread them around. The worst cycle is to give the germs to someone else, finally feel better, and then become re-infected by another co-worker. Colds produce inconvenience for a few days but a flu virus, like H1N1, can move rapidly through a location leaving a lengthening row of empty desk chairs. The spreading illness only adds to the reduced productivity when people show up with the hope of just keeping their eyes open until the end of the day.
The path between encouraging employees to stay home when they are sick and correcting attendance problems can be very tricky to navigate. A serious illness may qualify an employee for FMLA leave and you won’t want to take a seat at the conference table next to the guy covered in poison ivy after an over zealous gardening weekend. But the employee who never feels quite right on the day after a three day weekend or any time following a vacation is ready for a conversation about the importance of coming to work.
The basics of clear, consistent guidelines provide a framework for responding to these situations. Word spreads quickly when you apply the standard across the board without playing favorites. Don’t wait until an entire department has caught a mean bug to dust off your policy.