Cold and flu season is here, and people are coming to work sick

Cold and flu season is here, and people are coming to work sick

A relic of the days before the pandemic is returning to the workplace: the cold office.

You may remember being caught in his crosshairs – first one person shows up with a cough and a sniffle, swearing it all sounds worse than it feels. Within weeks, like clockwork, the bug hops from table to table until half the team is done counting.

With people returning to the workplace amid relaxed Covid protocols, poor uptake of Covid-19 supplements and cold and flu season looming, an office bug is causing problems unwanted return.

It wasn’t that long ago that ReDell Atkinson remembers her co-workers taking extra precautions in the office by wearing masks, keeping their distance, washing their hands and staying home when they were sick.

But in recent weeks, “it’s evident in the rooms: The sneezes will play out like a domino effect, and you can tell people aren’t staying home as quickly as they used to,” Atkinson, 27, tells CNBC Make It. “The precautions we took before are no longer there.”

Colds, flu and Covid cases could be serious this winter

There are already hints that this year’s cold and flu season could be a bad one: October 14th CDC reported early rise in seasonal flu activity. Hospitals across the country reported an increase in cases of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, a common virus that causes lung infections.

The rise in RSV cases is a good indication that “there are a lot of respiratory viruses circulating now,” says Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “Nobody can predict what’s going to happen, but it’s reasonable to be very concerned” that respiratory infections will increase in the late fall and winter, he says.

Meanwhile, he worries that public health practices emphasized during the pandemic are disappearing, that Americans have less access to free Covid tests and that companies are not doing more to protect workers through improved sick leave policies and ventilation systems.

Most Americans don’t plan to get your flu shot this season, there are two new omicron sub-variants spreading rapidly, and “the vast majority behave as if there is no pandemic,” says Swartzberg. “The same things we can do to prevent Covid are the same things that will prevent other respiratory infections.”

Possible symptoms of cold, flu and Covid

Sore throat Nose leak
Cough Sneezing
Headaches Pains in the body
Fever or chills/feeling feverish
Cough Sore throat
Runny/stuffy nose Muscle/body aches
Headaches Fatigue
Some people may experience vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more common in children than in adults.
Fever or chills Cough
Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath New loss of taste or smell
Fatigue Muscle/body aches
Headache Sore throat
Nasal congestion/runny nose Nausea/vomiting

Companies are ramping up warnings about returning to the office and productivity

Fall mistakes coincide with workers facing increasing pressure to return to the office, says Caroline Walsh, vice president of Gartner’s HR practice.

In September, 36% of organizations required workers to be in the office at least three days a week, up from 25% in August, according to a Gartner survey of 240 HR leaders — “although our data shows that they are working remotely, for those who can, doesn’t negatively impact performance and culture,” says Walsh. Still, “there’s more pressure to get people in, and it’s happening at the same time as cold, flu and RSV season.”

The same things we can do to prevent Covid are the same things that will prevent other respiratory infections.

dr. John Swartberg

clinical professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health

Recession fears could also cause workers to feel the need to call in sick. High inflation and a volatile stock market are putting a strain on organizations and productivity, especially as many try to get through the year in a shaky economy and “there’s a temptation to push people to put everything in and work until they can’t anymore,” says Walsh.

She also worries that the pandemic’s lessons about well-being are fading into the background: “In a way, it’s funny that we have to have this conversation,” she says. “You shouldn’t come to work sick. And the last two years should have taught us that. Some return to normality is exciting, but a return to normal pressure to go into the office when you’re sick is something I hoped we’d put behind us. “

Working while sick does everyone a disservice

Coming to work sick or even using electricity from home can be harmful on many levels.

For one thing, working instead of letting your body rest will only prolong your illness and recovery, says Dr. Geeta Nayyar, chief medical officer at Salesforce.

“When you rest, your immune system is in a better position to fight off any infection, heal and recover faster,” she says.

Some return to normality is exciting, but a return to normal pressures to go to the doctor’s office when I’m sick is something I’d hoped we’d left behind.

Caroline Walsh

Vice President in Gartner’s HR practice

Coming to the workplace while ill can also expose immunocompromised colleagues or their family members to the risk of illness.

In terms of productivity, you’re unlikely to be performing at your best, and in terms of morale, having colleagues show up sick “takes the whole team down,” adds Nayyar. “It shows that there is no opportunity to rest when you need it.”

Bosses need to encourage sick leave and they really mean it

The most effective thing employers can do to maintain a healthy workforce is to provide paid sick leave so people can stay home when they need to. But roughly 1 out of 5 workers does not have access to paid sick leave, and this is an even bigger problem for low wage workers.

And while enabling sick leave is one thing, it’s also important for bosses to take sick leave for themselves and proactively encourage their team to do the same.

Walsh says that if you are a manager, tactfully nudging your employee to go home doesn’t have to be awkward. Stick to simple questions: How are you? How are you feeling? I noticed you were sniffling a little at our last meeting — how’s it going?

If someone seems reticent about taking a break, “it’s helpful to uncover the barriers to that person taking time off,” says Walsh. As a manager, see if there is anything you can do to reduce their workload or redistribute work among team members.

For younger employees, make it clear when workers can and should take sick days or PTO, especially if you have unlimited policies. “Newer employees entering the workforce during the pandemic don’t really have a clue about the norms of when it’s okay to take time off,” says Walsh.

Behind all of this is the need for psychological security, she adds: “At the end of the day, workers need to know that they will not be penalized for absenteeism.”

Atkinson says she’s grateful to work for a company with unlimited sick days and the ability to work from home when needed. It’s the least she can do to keep herself, her family members and teammates healthy. “With everything going on, it’s irresponsible not to look out for other people.”

She remembers that her boss once told her: Take a day for yourself. We will see you by the end of the year. He helped her realize that if she shows up sick and does a bad job, it only makes the situation and her illness worse, instead of staying home to recover and come back feeling 100%.

“At the end of the day,” even if he takes a break, “the job will get done.”


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