While America is suffering through its worst flu season in years, the prospect of commuting in crowded trains and buses to workplaces with tight quarters and questionable air circulation doesn’t sound particularly appealing. And that’s where workplace flexibility yet again saves the day, helping employees stay healthy, if they’re not already infected, or get well again, if they are.
For the first time in the 13 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked influenza, every state in the continental United States is seeing “widespread” virus activity, as TIME reports, in part because the H3N2 strain is particularly prevalent this year and flu vaccines only successfully target it in 30% of cases.
So what can we do? For one, we can make sure employees have the flexibility they need to get the flu vaccine or see a doctor for medical attention. (Some companies even host a flu shot clinic at their workplaces.) One of the flexibility types we offer at Werk is MicroAgility™ , the ability to step away from work for a few hours to attend to personal tasks or issues. In a flu season like this one, MicroAgility could allow employees to visit the doctor—no more “I didn’t have time” excuses—or even rest during the day so they don’t overexert themselves.
We can also make sure employees feel empowered to stay home when they’re sick—even if they wish to continue working. With the ability to work remotely for the duration or a portion of their illness, employees can avoid the physical exertion of their commute, they can avoid the germs of public transportation, and they won’t risk getting their coworkers and others in their community sick. (Brace yourselves: The CDC says people with the flu can spread it to other people who are as far as six feet away.)
That last point is particularly important. Take the 1918 flu pandemic, for example, a public health disaster that claimed the lives of 50 to 100 million people worldwide. As The Wall Street Journal notes, "social distancing” measures—e.g. school closures, public gathering cancellations—made the difference between high and low mortality rates in U.S. cities in 1918. New York City enacted these measures quickly and lost the least number of residents out of any East Coast city. Pittsburgh did not and lost the most.
David Gray, a former acting assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor, advocated for workplace flexibility in flu seasons and beyond in a 2010 HuffPost essay. During outbreaks, he wrote, “it is likely that many workers will be sick enough that they will need to stay away from work, if only to keep their coworkers from being impacted, but they will be well enough to complete substantive work. Or many will be healthy themselves, but they will be needed at home to help care for a family member or a child. Schools across the nation will identify potentially sick children and many will have to stay at home for a week or more, so their working parents will be stuck at home.”
That 1918 pandemic is infamous, but there have been plenty of other severe flu seasons in the intervening 100 years. This current outbreak wasn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last. But companies that institute flexible policies and eliminate social pressure to work through illness (especially while physically present at the office) not only help quarantine future outbreaks but also save their own bottom line. Healthy employees are productive employees, after all; and if employees have no need to take sick days, so much the better.