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The Sick Thing Is, Flu Sufferers Feel Obligated to Work

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CHICAGO - Expect the flu outbreak to get worse before it gets better. That's the message from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC's Dr. Julie Gerberding said this season's flu bug has reached epidemic proportions and hasn't peaked. Her suggestion for anyone with the flu? Simple. Stay home, turn off the phone, get some rest.

Easy for her to say, hard to do for many employees.

"We all know people feel they will get penalized if they stay home rather than cover their shift," said Karen Martin, manager of infection control for Advocate Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill. "But we have launched a strong initiative to get our (employees) to stay home if they have flu symptoms. We have put out a computer broadcast and posted materials."

Martin said the hospital's leadership is concerned on two fronts: One, this year's flu outbreak is considered more severe in both terms of individual sickness and collective cases.

Two, there is worry about a SARS resurgence. To that end, Christ Hospital and many others have set up an emergency room entry-point protocol to separate and provide masks for any patients with flu symptoms. Deep, whole-body muscle ache (often severe) is one of the distinguishing factors from a bad cold, along with high fever, extreme exhaustion and sudden headache.

A significant problem for dedicated employees-nurses, for instance-is they don't like to miss work. They feel bad about making co-workers put in longer hours. Most of us can recall a time when we dragged ourselves to an office or workplace to get a job done.

At Christ Hospital, you would be sent home. Managers are seeking out sick workers and sending them to the employee health center. Anyone diagnosed with the flu is sent home.

Staying home in the first place is actually more beneficial to co-workers. You don't spread a communicable flu, which wreaks havoc with work shifts and can spread to workers' families.

Such sensible thinking can be challenged by employee benefits packages. For example, Christ Hospital employees accrue paid time off each month. The more hours they work, the more "PTO" they receive to use any way they please. Employees prefer to use the PTO for vacation or other upright activities, not to groan in bed with the chills.

Some companies offer a certain number of sick days a year (five is typical). In some cases, if employees don't use the sick days, they receive compensation, say, $100, for each day not used.

The idea is to discourage what DePaul University business ethicist Patricia Werhane calls "free riders" who stay home with "a little cough" because they are determined to use all sick days in a calendar year.

"But I think paying people (for not taking sick days) actually encourages people to come work when they should stay home with the flu," said Werhane, head of DePaul's Institute for Business and Professional Ethics.

Werhane said workers' sense of entitlement to sick days is a post-World War II phenomenon. But she said high absenteeism is a sign of other troubles.

"Managers need to be creating work cultures that make people want to come to work," she said. "Companies with high sick-day counts can trace it back to morale problems."

Sometimes a sick employee can take advantage of telecommuting to stay home the extra day or two that many doctors are recommending with the flu. It's still possible to do computer or phone work in your bathrobe.

Trouble is, Werhane said, too many bosses still don't embrace telecommuting. "If your physical body is not there at work, you are considered not working."

Honesty with your boss is the best first step. Provide some details about your flu symptoms (well, not too much), discuss your concerns about appearing to be a slacker. The advantage (warped as it might be) of this year's flu outbreak is that it is more widespread. Bosses likely have some anecdote about flu in their family.

Parents with younger children have statistics they can use. The typical U.S. adult gets about two or three colds each year. The typical U.S. adult with children in primary school or younger gets about six to eight colds per year. Logic says a similar pattern will emerge with the flu. Although hospitals are on full alert for SARS, most local human resource managers are not thinking in such sweeping terms.

"Managers are definitely aware the flu epidemic is worse than normal this year," said Werhane. "But, believe me, if we have a serious threat of SARS, companies would be changing their sick-day policies (to accommodate staying home as a precaution) in a nanosecond."


(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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