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Should employees be sent home at the first sign of a flu or cold?

Flu, or influenza, is a viral illness that occurs predominantly in the winter.  It can infect the nose, throat, sinuses, upper airways and the lungs.  Flu is easily confused with the common cold, which is also a viral illness, although caused by another virus.  Colds are caused by viruses and there may be more than 200 of them circulating during a cold and flu season.  On the other hand, there may only be one influenza virus that circulates each year.


Flu spreads easily from person to person through droplet distribution when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or quite commonly, through hand-to-hand (physical) contact. In an office environment, where people are in close contact with each other, it is therefore more likely for the flu or cold virus to spread and infect other people too.

Office environments have many so-called “flu hot spots”, such as an elevator button, stair railing, bathroom door, photo copy machine, a kettle or fridge, to name but a few, that people can touch and come into contact with a virus.  According to virologists, epidemiologists and other experts, there is a correlation between being sick with a cold or the flu and making others sick by touching them directly, or handling an object that they may soon touch themselves.

In the workplace, this correlation has important implications which are related to the ethical principle of fairness.  Firstly, employees cannot meet the needs of clients if they are not feeling well and secondly, sick employees may pass their flu or cold on to co-employees, who in turn may pass it on to their families.

Presenteeism, which is when employees go into the office when sick but not fully functioning, may also present a bigger problem than employees missing work due to illness.  Personal productivity can be less than half of their usual level when employees show up for work sick.

Despite compelling reasons why we think we think we ought to go to work while we’re sick with a cold or flu, we shouldn’t.  Employees with flu symptoms such as a sore throat, a cough or body aches combined with a fever of 37.8 degrees Celcius or greater, should notify their managers that they are sick and stay at home.  Minimising contact with fellow employees until a fever is gone for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication is important.

The best way to recover from a flu or cold and not spread it others, comes right from your grandmother’s book of sound advice:  stay in bed, get plenty of rest, drink enough fluids, gargle with salt water and give your body time to fight the infection. Stress and a lot of physical activity can depress our immune systems;  hence the importance of rest.

As employers, the best thing to do, is to send sick employees home.  It is important for companies to create a workplace environment where calling in sick isn’t frowned upon.  Employers owe a common law duty of care towards their employees and in the context of health, they have a duty to maintain a safe work environment for all employees.

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