How to Deal With an Employee With an Infectious Disease

Author: Kimberly-Anne Murphy

It is not rare for an employee to come to work while sick. Upon waking he or she may feel under the weather, yet, at the same time, overwhelmed because of the amount of work he or she has to do. Rarely does the notion of spreading germs cross that employee's mind when deciding to enter the workplace. Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common and is one of the reasons infectious diseases spread so rapidly in the workplace. It is especially important during cold and flu season for management to set a good example. When members of management come to work sick, they set the expectation for the entire workforce.

Every year, local health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urge people to stay home instead of spreading infectious diseases such as influenza, the common cold and even shingles. In the interest of protecting the entire workforce from personal and professional liability, employers must intervene when an employee with an infectious disease enters the workplace.

Step 1: Recruit a Safety Officer

Many employers have created a position for a Safety Officer. This person is responsible for overseeing all programs and policies related to employee safety, including but not limited to compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements. Stopping the spread of infection or disease may be assigned to the employee with this position.

Step 2: Create a Continuity Plan and a Contagious Disease Policy

To avoid shutting down operations at the time of a pandemic, employers should create and implement a Business Continuity Plan.

A Business Continuity Plan should address what happens when the workplace is threatened with shutting down operations, be it through a natural disaster or a pandemic. Without this plan, employers will be unprepared to effectively and efficiently deal with significant absences, adjustments to benefit plans and other challenges that arise due to such hazards as the spread of an infectious disease.

In the plan, there should be established contact protocols to local, state and federal public health and public safety agencies. There should also be a method to assure that the lines of communication are open and information is flowing.

If possible, business contracts, including insurance policies, should be understood and adjusted to follow the continuity policy. The policy should address and evaluate information technology capabilities, especially the availability of employees to work from home.

Part of the overall Business Continuity Plan should be designated as a medical or wellness contingency plan that includes vaccinations, antiviral medicines, exposure reduction/avoidance and education of employees.

In addition to the Continuity Plan, all employers should create a Contagious Disease Policy. This policy should address what the employer will do for employees (e.g., offer vaccinations, sick leave, etc.). It should also explain what the responsibility of employees to abstain from coming to work sick implies. Then, it should discuss what the employer will do to an employee who does not follow the policy, such as send the employee home.

Continuity Plans and Contagious Disease Policies should be reviewed and tested at least annually. This will ensure that in the event of an emergency everyone will know their roles and responsibilities. Employers should update and practice communication plans for all stakeholders (i.e., employees, customers, financial interests, etc.) regularly.

Step 3: Communicate

At the beginning of cold and flu season, or at the on-set of a pandemic, HR may want to take some time to remind the workforce of the Contagious Disease Policy.

Work with senior leadership to avoid presenteeism. When sick employees show up for work unable to perform at full capacity, known as presenteeism, there is a significant and costly impact on an organization, not only in terms of risking the spread of disease, but also in terms of diminished productivity.

Senior leaders and HR should communicate and review:

Disciplinary Policies

An organization that disciplines an employee for taking an extra day of sick time, for example a fifth day when only four are allowed, needs to be aware of the consequences of this action; namely, sick employees will be at work and may be spreading germs as well as exposing the organization to additional risks.

Providing paid time off while sick is an effective way for employers to help manage presenteeism. Paid sick leave is an efficient preemptive measure to prevent presenteeism.

Carry-Over Policies

Because not every flu season is as severe as the next and employees often have good and bad years when it comes to their health, employers that allow employees to carry over some or all of their unused sick days may allow employees a better way to manage the time they need to recover.

Wellness and Flu Shot Programs

Taking a proactive approach to helping employees manage their health, both in terms of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and taking preventative measures that reduce illness, also reduces the risk of presenteeism. Offering flu shots on premises ensures higher rates of protection among employees. In addition, reminding employees of simple tips such as the correct hand washing method, reduces the spread of communicable diseases.

Step 4: Educate

It is an employer's responsibility to educate the workforce on infectious diseases.

Include materials from the CDC on the different infectious diseases, methods and rates of infection and the differences in handling them. For instance, the handling of bloodborne pathogens differs from that of other infectious diseases. The lack of proper education in the workplace can lead to widespread panic.

Communication and education are the keys to preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Inviting health care professionals to provide literature and seminars, including demonstrations (hand-washing, covering a cough, etc.), can provide the workforce with invaluable tools to stay healthy and ensure the continuity of productivity for an organization.

Step 5: Act Immediately

The longer an employee is sick at work, the more time an infection has to spread. For example, cold viruses can live on contaminated surfaces for up to six hours.

Employers should talk to the employee in private and communicate the concern for their health, physical as well as emotional. It is an emotional burden to be physically ill but still have enough anxiety to get up, get dressed and go to the office.

HR is permitted to ask an employee about his or her health. Here are some samples:

  • Good morning. You look a bit under the weather. How are you feeling?
  • Are you sick? Do you need to go home? Can I call someone for you?

Once the topic has been broached, it is important to explain to a sick employee that both parties have an obligation to provide and support a healthy work environment for all employees. This pertains to anyone who poses a risk to themselves as well as others.

Next, discuss the employer's sick leave policy, including the employee's specific circumstance (e.g., how many days he or she has remaining, how to take advance sick leave if necessary, etc.).

At this point, the expression of concern from a supervisor or senior management might be enough to make the employee feel comfortable enough to go home.

To ease and expedite the exit of an infectious employee, a supervisor is permitted to complete a time card for their employees if necessary that day.

As an alternate to asking an employee to take a sick day, if the job description and employer technology permit, HR may want to offer to let the employee work from home. This is especially a good idea when the employee feels good enough to work but does not want to infect his or her fellow workers.

Additional Resources

Risk Management > Employee Health > Infectious Diseases

Risk Management > Organizational Risk > Ensuring Operations: Business Continuity

Emergency Contact Form

Contagious Disease Policy

Business Continuity Policy

Letter Suggesting the Importance of Being Vaccinated