With cold and flu season in full swing, many professionals face the tough decision of whether to call in sick or just soldier on. Traditionally, working through an illness meant the individual was hardworking and committed, and those who call in sick could impede on their career progression.

However, the reality is that working when unwell reduces productivity, increases employee stress and reduces engagement and morale, leading to higher levels of employee sick leave in the longer term.

Data from the ONS states that 2.5 million Brits are currently out of work due to long-term sickness. Furthermore, the new workforce health index (WHI) released by the CBI shows the UK loses 131 million working days a year to ill health, costing the nation around £180billion in GDP.

As COVID/ Flu cases rise and NHS backlog passes 7 million for the first time, this issue is only going to worsen, unless employers start taking flu season seriously and improving their duty of care to their employee’s health and wellbeing.

Now that most businesses offer a hybrid working model, those individuals who are unwell but still mentally fit to work, have the option to work from home. Inevitably, this makes the decision to call in sick even harder, and encourages employees to fall into the cycle of working when they are ill – known as ‘presenteeism’.

A report on CIPD found that 81% HR respondents observed presenteeism among those working from home, compared to 65% observing it in the workplace. While running the risk of exacerbating illness and infecting others, presenteeism costs the business. Sick employees are likely to be less productive and generally have an impaired performance which affects quantity and quality of work.

So, how do professionals decide when to work in the office or when to work from home? What is the appropriate office etiquette if someone comes into the office under the weather? And how do businesses ensure they are promoting a healthy working environment?

Should I stay or should I go? When to call in sick during flu season…

The stigma around taking sick leave means that no matter how unwell an employee feels, calling in sick can be a challenge. Often employees feel guilt around taking time off and have a fear of judgement from bosses, driving them to work when sick.

It is in the best interest of all to eradicate the stigma and such feelings of guilt head on. Employers should be proactive in creating an environment where people feel able to take sick leave, as contagious employees have a snowball effect on the rest of the workforce.

If an employee is deciding whether to call in sick then they should evaluate the situation with their symptoms in mind, and decide the best course of action for themselves and their colleagues, remembering those who are vulnerable.

If an employee has a contagious illness then they shouldn’t go to work and expose coworkers to their illness. Employees should be encouraged to stay at home until they are better or know for sure that they aren’t contagious.

Symptoms to look out for:

  • Flu symptoms: fever, chills, body aches
  • Cold symptoms: cough, runny nose, sneezing
  • Vomiting or diarrhoea
  • COVID symptoms

If an employee feels well enough to work, but is exhibiting any of the above symptoms, they should be mindful when deciding whether to work in the office, to avoid infecting colleagues. If the job entails working in the public, sick staff can be a hub for infection. In order to keep all members of the workforce and the public safe, employees should only come into the office when they are fit to do so. By being responsible and prioritising employee health, there will be higher levels of productivity and lower levels of sickness rates and absenteeism in the long term.

How to avoid getting sick at work and appropriate etiquette to follow?

If you or a colleague is unwell at work, there are easy to adopt measures you can take to reduce the impact. Such as:

  • Wash your hands regularly. Washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is the best way to ensure you don’t spread or catch germs.
  • Cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or into a tissue. If you’re fighting off a cold, contain your germs by controlling the flow. Coughing or sneezing into your hands is much more likely to spread the contagion.
  • Keep your workplace clean. After you’ve been sick, be sure to wipe down surfaces at your desk with an alcohol-based solution.
  • Encourage social distancing. Modifying office seating arrangements to allow for more space between desks and colleagues will limit the spread of infection.

Prevention over cure

The pandemic has placed a long-overdue focus on people’s health and wellbeing and it’s encouraging that the vast majority of businesses have taken additional action to support employees as a consequence. One side benefit of these kinds of arrangements is that, over time, it is likely to drive a wider shift toward businesses using more preventative diagnostic testing that could ultimately have a profound impact in improving health outcomes for their staff.

It is essential businesses step up and ensure their workers have access to preventative healthcare, and shifting to preventative healthcare is something we know there’s an appetite for, especially during flu season. A survey from Cignpost found that over 70% of employees are willing to take diagnostic tests to support their health and well-being, and 46% of those aged 24-44 would like their workplace to provide regular screenings to help them keep on top of their health.

It has long been a truism that a healthy business begins with healthy employees. Businesses that invest in the health and wellbeing of their staff will see more staff retention, lower absenteeism, and more productivity than if they simply raised salaries: such benefits indicate that employers care about their employees. Those that don’t risk falling victim to trends such as quiet quitting and the great resignation. So, protect your workers this flu season!

Denis Kinane
Denis Kinane
Scientist at Cignpost Diagnostics | + posts

Denis Kinane is a Professor at the University of Bern, CMO and co-founder of CIGNPOST DIAGNOSTIC, Director of two health companies, and CEO of a pharma start-up focused on inflammatory, infective and cancer formulations.