February 9, 2014

Sick at work? How to balance work and health

HR professional: Balance work and health

by Sarah Einselen Pharos-Tribune

---- — It’s flu season. You wake up with puffy eyes and a runny nose.

But you can’t call in sick to work. You’ve got a job to do — or maybe you’re worried your job might not be there once you’re well again.

So what do you do?

Most employees opt to go to work, whether because of their own work ethic, pressure from their managers or fear of job loss during the recent economic downturn. And there can be such a thing as “not sick enough,” according to a local human resources professional.

One survey of more than 6,300 UK professionals published in 2012 found nearly 60 percent had reported going to work when they felt sick during a three-month period. Two-thirds of them told the researchers they were their own pressure to go to work, while a fifth said that pressure came from their managers.

A more recent survey of about 700 office employees and managers in the U.S. conducted by OfficeTeam, an office staffing service, found even more reported frequently working while they felt sick.

According to an OfficeTeam press release, 70 percent of the professionals surveyed said they’d done so frequently, and 65 percent of the managers said they knew their employees came in to work while sick at least somewhat frequently.

Locally, some went to work while sick because recent snow events had already delayed their duties.

“With the amount of time that we’ve had off this year with the holidays and the snow days, there comes a point when you just have to get some things done,” Logansport-Cass County Chamber of Commerce director Megan Paschen said recently. “I don’t feel like I’m sick enough to stay home. I just have the sniffles.”

Others may be worried that too many sick days may translate into losing a job, according to the leader of a local human resources group.

Lynda Murphy, president of the Logansport Area Personnel Association and vice president of human resources at Logansport Memorial Hospital, conceded small office environments — where certain tasks are complex and usually carried out by just one or two people — can make sick time difficult to take.

“It’s interesting because depending on your perspective or who you ask, how sick is sick? That happens frequently,” Murphy said.

“Really the manager will grill them, and that’s not right to a certain degree, but I understand the manager’s perspective of ‘you’re the only one who knows how to do this.’”

Working in healthcare means Murphy emphasizes prevention — sleeping well, eating healthy meals, exercising and reducing outside stressors — and says she’s noticed such measures keep people from getting sick in the first place.

But if someone does get sick — say, with a bad cold — it can challenge an office with few employees to begin with.

For example, she said, four people staff the human resources office at LMH, and just one person is assigned to payroll duties. “If our payroll person doesn’t make it in, we’re screwed,” she said. After heavy snowfall, “if she can’t get in, they go get her.”

Managers may ask an employee if they’re able to do some part of their job despite sickness, Murphy said. “So that really puts a lot of stress on that employee because they don’t feel well. But they also have that work ethic that, I don’t want to leave my company hanging… I don’t want to let my manager down.”

Anyone in her office who does have the sniffles is encouraged to stay in an office with the door closed and wash their hands frequently. Everyone else, too, is encouraged to wash or use hand sanitizer to keep germs from spreading.

It’s similar to the steps taken in the chamber of commerce office. “We don’t share phones, and I just kind of stay contained in my office and [use] lots of hand sanitizer,” Paschen said.

As a manager, Murphy said it can be difficult to strike a good balance between getting work done and taking it easy.

“It kind of goes, in my opinion, that as long as your coworkers understand that ‘I am not at 100 percent, I’m not going to be able to do everything I should be doing or could be doing’… and they’re OK with that, that’s a situation that you kind of have to deal with,” Murphy said.

She also pushes to cross-train employees as much as possible, asking “what things can we fumble our way through if you can’t make it in?”

With recent advances in information networking and cloud-based data systems, telecommuting has become another option for sniffly workers, Murphy added.

“I think the stigma of not being there and working from home is less than what it used to be,” she said. “They don’t just think, well you say you’re working, but are you doing your laundry?”

Sick employees might be just a text or a phone call away if a cross-trained coworker runs into an issue, too. “But on the other hand, if that person truly is sick, you really need to leave them alone and let them rest.”

Sarah Einselen is news editor at the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at or 574-732-5151. Twitter: @PharosSME