Cold, flu or Covid? Taking sick days in an always-on era

Dr Geeta Nayyar outlines how to create a healthy, happy and productive workforce and empower staff with personal accountability

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As the nights draw in and the temperatures drop, the inevitable spike in common colds and winter flu will set in. But now, not only are we contending with cold versus flu symptoms, there are also Covid concerns when it comes to assessing symptoms and ability to work.

The NHS reported that an average of 344 hospital beds a day in England were taken up by flu cases in the second week of November. Now, experts are suggesting the UK is set to face a triple-demic of flu, Covid and respiratory syncytial virus as healthcare demand surges over the winter months.

In the era of hybrid work, many employees feel conflicted about what is sick enough to take a day off, and how to have these conversations with managers. On the flip side, for those managing a workforce, understanding how to empower staff with personal accountability and supporting their wellbeing is incredibly important every day of the year – but even more so in winter flu season.

The calling in sick conversation

By empowering employees to take charge of their own health and wellbeing, managers can ensure their staff are able to make a swift recovery.

According to research from Metlife UK, calling in sick to work often feels like a last resort, with 32 per cent of employees feeling guilty about colleagues having to pick up work for them. However, the long-term health impact of working while under the weather can often be far greater – and result in more recurrent sickness – as we don’t give our bodies the necessary rest and recovery time they need.

When managers are having sickness absence conversations, it’s important to ask the relevant questions, not only to understand how much time an employee should be taking off but also what might be stopping them from doing so. While the individual is the best judge of their own health, ensuring they feel supported and able to take time off is vital to providing the necessary support.

One of the benefits of hybrid work is that employees have the option to work from the comfort of their homes. This is beneficial for the business in terms of minimising the spread of colds and viruses in the office, but it also means that staff illness can go unnoticed. In some instances, logging on to do a few urgent tasks then taking the day to sleep can be enough, but sometimes taking a couple of days to seek medical help and recover is the best option.

Working from bed?

As a manager, setting a good example for employees to follow is an important part of setting a team up for success. Leading by example and refraining from coming into the office when recovering from illness empowers other team members to make smarter decisions when it comes to their own health and the health of their co-workers.

In a pre-pandemic world, it was often the case that cold and flu season would impact entire teams as employees unknowingly brought viruses into the office, which would then inevitably spread like wildfire. One of the benefits of a hybrid set up is that workers have the option to stay home when they’re not feeling 100 per cent and minimise the risk of spreading viruses. However, this can only work if employees feel empowered to do so.

Trust and flexibility are key to a ‘work from anywhere’ strategy. Employers must trust employees can get their jobs done with a schedule that works best for them and offer flexible options – whether that be starting later to attend a doctor's appointment or taking an extended lunch to visit the pharmacy. As teams become more distributed, leading with empathy and understanding will become even more important.

Health and wellbeing best practices

As a responsible employer, managers have a duty of care when it comes to the workforce. Part of this responsibility is educating and keeping employees informed about how to stay healthy during cold and flu season, whether this be facilitating flu jabs or simple reminders about how viruses are spread and how this can be minimised in an office environment.

Similarly, reminding employees of the signs and symptoms to look out for can help them make informed decisions when it comes to taking charge of their own health and wellbeing. Taking this mindful approach not only benefits the individual but the greater team, ultimately creating a healthier, happier and more productive workforce.

Dr Geeta Nayyar is chief medical officer at Salesforce