There's A Lot of It About...

Submitted by Karen on 02nd February 2015

Human Resources - Workplace Illness

As I am recovering from my first cold of this winter (and it was a corker I can tell you!), I am inevitably pondering the impact of the common cold on the workplace.

In spite of the rapid pace of technological and medical advancement in recent years, the human body remains vulnerable to physical ailments.  Some are undoubtedly serious and life-threatening, others are no more than an inconvenience. None are more irritating in the workplace than the common cold.

Why?

It's "just" a cold.  It doesn't even sound like a "proper" illness, yet it can make one feel really rather dreadful.  The really tricky thing for employers to manage is that there are so many variations of the cold virus, that a cold that leaves one person with a bit of a sniffle and a sore throat for a couple of days can knock another person off their feet for a week.  People with underlying conditions (such as asthma) can be hit particulary badly by a cold and can become very unwell as a result.

For those who take time off, there will be the quandary of how to describe the absence on their self certification form, the embarassment of having fallen victim to a mere cold.  It's not a case that the illness was not genuine, more that the official title doesn't do justice to how ill you felt (if you tell me you've never had this conversation with yourself, I may not believe you).

*fills in "reason for absence" section*

A COLD.  Hmmm, that doesn't seem sufficiently serious for me to have taken time off.  It's "just" a cold, after all.

HEAD COLD.  A little more serious-sounding, but is it enough?  Have another go...

FLU-LIKE SYMPTOMS, TEMPERATURE, CHESTY COUGH.  Bingo! That's it.  

Lots of people carry on working as they don't feel they can justify time off sick, they worry their work cannot be covered, or they cannot afford it financially if they do not receive company sick pay.  And so, the cold virus spreads through the workforce.  It's all very well giving a cold to a colleague, because they may not be badly affected and carry on working, just like you did.  But the cold does not only affect your colleagues, oh no, it spreads into their families too.  Once the children are ill, that's when the real disruption starts because they may react differently to the virus and have to take time off school or nursery.  This results in adults having to stay home and look after them.

It's not just about protecting colleagues and their families from the cold either.  Employees in customer-facing roles coughing and spluttering over valued clients - how does that look?

It is, in my view, in everyone's interests to prevent the spread of the cold virus through any workplace.  The ways in which this can be done depend greatly on the type of workplace and the terms and conditions in which people work.  At the very least, the employer could invest in plenty of boxes of tissues, hand sanitiser and anti-bacterial wipes for telephone mouthpieces.  If any of that prevents even one day being lost through sickness then surely it's worth doing.

If the business is office based and much of the work is done by computer, can an employee work from home instead of spraying the germs around the office environment with every sneeze?

Can internal meetings be rearranged to avoid the germs being breathed and blown around an enclosed space?

Can customer interactions be rearranged to phonecalls and video conferences to prevent the negative impact of employees giving the client something "extra"?

Of course, not all of these measures are appropriate to every workplace but it has to be worth thinking about how we can all take steps to reduce the spread of the all-too-common cold during what's left of the winter and reduce the impact on our work and home lives.   After all, there's a lot of it about at the moment....

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