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Employees may be going to work sick again, which could spell trouble this winter

Universal masking is ideal, but employers may need to weigh other options to keep employees safe this cold and flu season, one expert cautions.
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· 4 min read

What’s worse than sitting next to someone who just reheated fish in the office microwave? Sitting next to someone who’s sick.

And yet, despite the precautions taken to reduce Covid-19 transmission at work, 62% of US workers say they’d go into the office while sick, “unless their symptoms were severe enough that they couldn’t get out of bed,” according to a survey conducted by OnePoll for Theraflu. One medical expert told HR Brew that HR teams have an obligation to try to keep employees safe.

The situation. It’s going to be a rough winter, according to doctors and infectious disease experts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is projecting a particularly bad flu season, and yet, just half of Americans are planning to get this year’s flu shot.

At the same time, many hospitals are being inundated with children who have severe respiratory syncytial virus [RSV], a virus that’s frequently transmitted to adults.

And Covid-19 is still here. The numbers don’t paint a complete picture, due in part to home testing, but the US had an estimated 40,102 new cases during the third week of November and more than 3,000 hospital admissions from the virus per week. Furthermore, reports suggest that Americans aren’t getting the bivalent booster.

When combined, the three viruses, or “tripledemic,” are already causing (sometimes literal) headaches for workers across the country, and the next few months may be rough.

“You’ve got this waning Covid immunity, coinciding with the impact of the flu coming along here, and RSV,” Andrew Read, an evolutionary microbiologist at Penn State University, told the New York Times last month. “We’re in uncharted territory here.”

Keeping employees safe. Some 67% of respondents to OnePoll’s survey said they would go into work sick out of fear of punishment. And since Labor Day, there’s been increased pressure on many workers to be in the office full time. “There’s more pressure to get people in, and it’s hitting at the same time as cold and flu and RSV season,” Caroline Walsh, VP of HR at Gartner, told CNBC.

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Compounding potential health risks, many workplaces got rid of all their Covid-19 precautions in recent months, even though the CDC still recommends masking to help stop the spread of respiratory viruses.

Lisa Meeks, an assistant professor and expert in disabilities in medical education at the University of Michigan, told HR Brew that in an ideal world, everyone would still be masking at work. But since that’s not a realistic expectation at this time, she recommended that employers continue considering the safety and well-being of all employees when developing policies.

“What employers should be thinking about is, ‘What do we have in place to support the well-being and safety of all of our employees, regardless of their political affiliations, or their belief systems about masks? How are we empowering people to make good decisions about whether or not they come and expose other people to illness?’”

The White House has also urged employers to take a more active role in reminding employees to get vaccinated, and to make sure their offices have proper ventilation. “A localized air cleaner is really helpful at reducing local transmission risk,” Shelly Miller, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Fortune.

While it may seem like common sense, the CDC is recommending that employers continue to urge employees to stay home if they’re not feeling well. If someone shows up to work sick, employers should ask them to go home and, when appropriate, provide them with the option of working from home.

Bottom line: Much like the hot fish, no one wants sick colleagues in the office.—KP

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @Kris10Parisi on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Kristen for her number on Signal.

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