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Companies Should Pay You to Stay Home With the Flu, Study Says
Workplace policies that protect their employees from spreading the flu could cause anywhere from 6 to 40 percent fewer infections per flu season, according to a new simulation-based study.
By Jeffrey Kopman
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THURSDAY, June 13, 2013 —Dragging yourself out of bed, sneezing through rush hour traffic, and coughing your way from 9 to 5 instead of taking a sick day or two could be causing an increase in workplace flu cases as large as 40 percent, according to an analysis by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Researchers developed an epidemic simulation to figure out how many people would be impacted by an infectious disease outbreak. The simulation used population data from 575,866 employees in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Penn.
The results showed that 66,444 additional infections were caused by workplace transmission, including 47,768 from workers who showed up knowing they were sick.
Workers were also more likely to become infected and spread the virus if their company did not offer paid time off than employees who were able to take a sick day. Paid sick days resulted in 3,896 fewer flu cases (nearly six percent).
But the biggest difference came when employees were given a “one or two flu day" policy. This scenario offered employees one or two additional sick days to stay at home while sick with the flu. The one day flu policy simulation resulted in 16,833 fewer infections (approximately 25 percent). A two day flu policy resulted in 26,059 fewer cases (nearly 40 percent).
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people with flu stay home for 24 hours after their fever breaks," said lead author Supriya Kumar, PhD, MPH, a post-doctoral associate in Pitt Public Health's Department of Epidemiology, in a press release. "However, not everyone is able to follow these guidelines. Many more workers in small workplaces than in large ones lack access to paid sick days and hence find it difficult to stay home when ill. Our simulations show that allowing all workers access to paid sick days would reduce illness because fewer workers get the flu over the course of the season if employees are able to stay home and keep the virus from being transmitted to their co-workers."
Study authors believe that the feeling of guilt from taking sick days, concerns about not getting work done, and worries about job security contribute to people not taking days off. Future research should look into these factors and an employee’s willingness to take a sick day.
"These findings make a strong case for paid sick days," said Dr. Kumar. "Future research should examine the economic impacts of paid sick-day policies."
The Cost of Sick Days
Paid sick days might be seen as a cost burden on smaller companies, but these policies are designed to help both the company and its workers.
“If employees are sick, and they don’t have paid sick days, they are more likely to go to work because they can’t afford to miss the day,” said Alice L. Kassens, PhD, associate professor of economics at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. “This can cause the disease to spread and lead to even greater loss of productivity. They can have an absenteeism issue or a presenteeism issue for other workers that causes loss of productivity on a greater scale.”
Dr. Kassens added that going to work sick is more of an issue for small companies — which often feel they can’t afford to offer sick days.
But there are also some risks associated with offering paid sick days that cause companies to reject them.
“Paid sick days are a type of compensation, adding paid sick days increases compensation, and some businesses can’t afford it,” said Kassens. “It might also enable people to call in sick, even if they are not.”
Ultimately, the best compromise might be a combination of sick days and other options.
“The other alternative could be paying for the flu shot, which could save money and treat the flu, while avoiding absenteeism and presenteeism,” Kassens concluded.
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