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4 things employers can do as coronavirus spreads

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January 27, 2020
By Todd Humber

Photo: PeopleImages/Getty

With news breaking this morning that there is a second “presumptive” case of coronavirus in Toronto, there are a few critical steps employers across the country can take to help in the global efforts to mitigate its spread.

Please, no perfect attendance awards

First, have a look around your office. If you have a “perfect attendance” plaque hanging on the wall somewhere, take it down and burn it. If you have a page in your employee manual that discusses bonuses for not using sick days, rip it out, crumple it up and toss it in the waste bin.

People who come into the office when sick and contagious aren’t heroes, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Bosses who applaud and encourage such behaviour aren’t leaders, they’re misguided.


Discouraging or punishing an ill worker for staying home is playing Russian roulette with the health of your entire team — whether it’s as something as innocuous as the common cold or something as serious as the flu or this new strain of coronavirus.

Doctor’s notes a risky waste of resources

Second, please don’t ask your employees for a doctor’s note for a short-term illnesses. It simply serves to clog an already burdened health-care system and increases the risk for spreading the sickness — all because employers don’t trust the professionals working for them.

“Isolated illness such as influenza or gastrointestinal virus are common causes for short-term absenteeism, particularly during the winter months,” the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) stated in a submission to the government on the use of sick notes. “These viruses are highly contagious and spread when people come into contact with those who are infected. Consequently, contagious individuals in waiting rooms will inadvertently expose others to the virus.”

The OMA pointed out that eliminating a requirement for notes often leads to an increase in the number of sick days being taken — leading some to opine that employees are abusing the privilege. But it said a different narrative should be taken into account when searching for an explanation.

“It is conceivable that when the more restrictive sick leave policy was in place, sick employees either refrained from taking sick days or returned to work prematurely,” it said. “Should a sick employee come to work while still contagious, they risk exposing colleagues to the virus, who may also fall ill and require time off.”

Sick employees prone to mistakes

A report from the Economic Policy Institute in the United States highlighted an obvious fact that can often be overlooked in the conversation around sick days — particularly for workers without paid sick days who have to make a difficult financial choice.

“For the millions of workers without access to paid sick days, many workers who are sick feel forced to go to work, where they are less likely to be productive and more prone to mistakes,” wrote authors Elise Gould and Jessica Schieder.

So not only are they potentially make others workers sick, you’re not even getting much value for your money.

Keep those soap dispensers full

Tip number three comes courtesy of building management at the offices of Annex Business Media, publishers of Talent Canada, in Toronto. This morning, we got a note from them that hand sanitizers have been installed in the main lobbies and common areas.

Laudable, but the key part of the announcement was two simple words — that the dispensers would be “continuously maintained.”

How many times have you gone to scrub your hands — either a hand sanitizer or a soap dispenser in the washroom — only to find it empty. While keeping an eye on the Purell levels may not be part of your job description, it’s a small but important step to not only stopping the spread of disease but also ensuring your employees understand the company is serious about making a difference.

About those paid sick days

The last bit of advice to employers is to invest in paid sick days as part of the employee experience. They are a low-cost benefit, and you can cap the maximum number of days — something in the five to 10 day range is common.

Yes, some employees will abuse the privilege. Yes, some staffers will treat them like paid vacation days — “It’s November and I still have four paid sick days, I need to use them up.”

But they will be in the minority, and workers you suspect of malingering can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Remember, these people are professionals that you trust — and pay — every day to run your business.

If you don’t trust them to make the right call about staying home when truly sick, your organization has far bigger problems than the hacking and coughing coming from your cubicles.

Todd Humber is a group publisher with Annex Business Media in Toronto. An award-winning journalist, he has spent more than two decades covering HR and employment issues.

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