Workplace illness and the rise of Coronavirus

With the rise of Coronavirus, it seems more poignant than ever to consider how to approach the issue of illness in the workplace. So how can we keep ourselves, and others, well at work? And what should we generally do if we do become ill?

Well, we all know the theory around what to do when are sick. Drink plenty of fluids, head to the pharmacy or doctors for some advice/medication and get lots of rest- but it is finding time to get that rest that seems to be most problematic.

Getting enough rest when you are ill may seem simple in practice, but in reality, life gets in the way. A large reason that people are not taking the rest that they need is due to work and the ever-growing issue of presenteeism.

A culture of presenteeism

Presenteeism is defined as the practice of being present at one’s place of work for more hours than is required, especially as a manifestation of insecurity about one’s job and can be a strong factor in making people turn up at work when they should really be at home resting. Some organisations still foster the culture that if you’re not at your desk, you’re not working and that the greater the hours you work, the greater your productivity. But this could not be further from the truth. Modern research has proven time and time again that longer working hours have a negative impact on productivity and the bottom line and statistics from the Financial Times have shown that Germany, with the fewest hours per worker per year (1,356), produces $60.40 of GDP per worker-hour compared to the UK worker’s 1,681 annual hours which produce a mere $48.30. So, having employees who are too anxious to take time off when they are unwell is not good for a company’s productivity and that’s before we even start to consider the impact of am unwell person dragging themselves (and their pathogens) into the workplace.

Indeed, a report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 86% of the 1,000 organisations surveyed had noticed employees coming into work when they were ill. This was up from only 26% in 2010. Going to work when you are ill means that illnesses last longer and workers feel miserable. Sick employees spread their illness to others which further reduces productivity throughout an organisation – and the impact of this is huge. One estimate puts the annual cost of presenteeism at £15.1bn a year – and that is just for mental health-related illnesses. That’s £605 for every employee in the UK.

Coronavirus- Planning for the worst

Given the current global outbreak of the Coronavirus- it might be worth brushing off your disaster recovery plan and giving good consideration to business continuity in the face of a pandemic disease outbreak.

Evaluate what will be required to continue, in terms of services, procedures and products- and consider how this can be done with a limited number of employees and how the business will continue in to function, without the use of physical office.

The plan should include a list of alternative plans, outcomes and instructions for all aspects of the business. Preparations that address how employees communicate and expectations during such a change in process will be paramount in such times of crisis.

Measures of prevention

Employers need to have responsible measures in place to ensure their workers are encouraged to stay away when they are ill. This means allowing people time when they are unwell. Bosses also need to ensure that working conditions are not environments that aid the spread of illness.   

It sounds simple but making sure that employees have the correct conditions to wash their hands is vital and so often not provided in a workplace. Having access to anti-bacterial soap and water is an obvious must but the NHS recommends drying hands with a paper towel – not a hand dryer – if you want the most effective results. Ensuring that hand washing stations are available anywhere where food is being prepared or consumed is another must.

Ensuring that a workplace is clean is also vitally important. Research has found that the average desk has 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. Anti-bacterial wipes are a great way of preventing this build up so if you aren’t having your workplace cleaned at the end of each working day, ensuring employees are provided with these for their workstations can be the first step in preventing these nasties from being passed on (especially if you hot-desk in your workplace!).

With the previous point in mind, eating at desks should be a no-no. Not only does eating at one’s desk have a negative impact on wellbeing, eating in an area surrounded by all that bacteria is a recipe for disaster and crumbs/grease in the keyboards are only going to make the problem worse.

But workers need to take responsibility too. If you are genuinely ill, take the time your body needs. Not only will it speed up your recovery, but you will also save others from catching your illness and prevent it from spreading.

Remote control

Another option is to speak with your employer about flexible working when you are unwell. If you are at the tail end of a cold (a bit run down and feeling much better but definitely still contagious) then working from home could be the answer. You will be able to take it easy and take regular breaks if needed, there will be no danger of infecting anyone else and you can catch up on any admin that the hustle and bustle of the office makes it hard to keep on top of.

In short, illness is inevitable but there are definitely steps that employers and employees alike, can take to have a more responsible, ethical and sensible approach to working when unwell.