When employees are sick, there’s no place like home

Amanda Mayle

We’ve all been there. Not feeling our best, but pushing through and going on with work, life and commitments because we feel like we have to. We’ve also all been here.  Coworkers come to work and tells us they’re sick. But there they are, at the desk next to ours. Oh, and they just sneezed all over the phone we share.

The Office of National Statistics reports that in 2017, employees took an average of 4.1 days off for illness compared to 7.2 days taken in 1993.  While it’s difficult to determine the exact reason for the decline in sickness-related absences, the desire to show up, or “presenteeism,” is a likely contributor.

It’s time to buck this trend in workplace culture. We should all take better care of ourselves — and we can start by staying home when we’re sick. As we have seen magnified in our community in recent weeks, illness can spread rapidly. When we don’t take time away from public settings to isolate ourselves when we’re sick, we put the entire community at risk.

The recent gastrointestinal illness outbreak in Mesa County received national media attention mainly because it affected so many people so quickly. The illness resulted in the closure of all the schools in Mesa County School District 51, Mesa County’s largest employer. What started in one building quickly spread to multiple buildings. After a few initial closures, it seemed like a game of whack-a-mole. Just as one building reopened after some additional cleaning, there were reports of active vomiting at another building. So many students and staff got sick so quickly District 51 couldn’t keep up.

An illness like norovirus is the likely culprit.  Norovirus is extremely common, very infectious and concentrated in the diarrhea and vomit of infected people. Those bodily fluids aerosolize and can travel up to 25 feet from where the person was ill. The virus can then remain on surfaces for weeks and continue to infect those who come into contact with those surfaces and touch their mouths, noses or eyes. This makes workplaces and other public gathering spaces prime targets for viruses associated with the illness.

Good hand washing is your best protection. But if you do get sick, isolating yourself is the only way to make sure you’re preventing further spread.

Employers have the opportunity to influence workplace culture and discourage the urge we all seem to feel to push through and not miss work when we’re not feeling well. Businesses can help by offering sick or other paid time off to employees and encouraging them to use it or consider offering telecommute or work-from-home options to employees when they’re feeling better, but could still risk infecting others. 

As we head into what are historically the most active months for influenza in Mesa County, foster a work culture that’s supportive of employee wellness. Illness, or not feeling well, is one way our bodies tell us it’s time for a break. Encourage your employees to listen. Over time, having your unhealthy employees distanced from the healthy ones will lead to more productive worksites and could even prevent a closure.

The advice from public health officials to stay home when you’re sick isn’t just a talking point. It’s vital to ensure our community is protected from highly contagious, fast-spreading illnesses that can have some very undesirable symptoms.

Oh, and wash your hands.