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opinion

As we prepare to return to workplaces with other people close by, we have the challenge of setting ground rules for how offices deal with illness in a post-outbreak world.

With jurisdictions such as Alberta dropping mandatory self-quarantine requirements, and with others likely to follow suit over time, we are faced with what Alberta’s chief medical officer describes as a need to reject old mindsets around sickness at work. When common symptoms such as sore throats, coughs, and sniffles could be colds, flus, COVID-19 or the next potential contagion, all of us have to treat workplace illnesses differently.

We all know the “heroic sick person” who just has to come into the office despite being everybody’s contagious nightmare (yes, this might be you). If the last 16 months has taught us anything, it is that there is merit in keeping yourself at home when you are even mildly sick. In almost all workplaces, technology has proven that it can connect us to the office when there are critical tasks to perform remotely. Hopefully, we have also learned that we have to take care of ourselves and those around us when sickness prevails.

This is something we have to expect for the workplace of the future, where we are typically working in closer proximity and in more open workspaces than ever before. What helps to foster collaboration in an open-concept office can also be the perfect storm for spreading around something as simple as a common cold.

A great example comes from a recent incident in my own home where my older daughter got sick after participating in a sports camp. As a precaution (and we were leaving on vacation soon) she was checked out by a doctor, which included getting a COVID-19 test. What turned out to be a cold or summer flu very quickly worked its way through most of our household, just as it would in most office spaces. Three of the four of us spent a week hacking and sneezing, feeling generally miserable.

In our workplaces, the similar potential for quick transmission of illness reminds us that we have to set some new ground rules to keep everyone as safe as possible.

First Rule: Stay home, even if you feel mildly sick. You can take care of yourself from home, and likely work from there if needed. If your work involves a customer-facing role, it’s even more important that you stay home. Hopefully we’ll see government programs continuing to support vulnerable workers where employer-based programs are lacking.

Second Rule: If you show up sick, you should be sent home by your boss, colleagues, or anyone that would have to work with you. Whatever you are doing, the likelihood is it can wait or be taken up by a colleague. I have yet to see a company go under because a single employee had to stay home to recover from an illness.

Third Rule: Employers need to support employees who stay home sick. No employee should feel their job is in jeopardy if they stay home. Yes, there will be those who take advantage, as there are in any workplace. Deal with those people separately as a management intervention, rather than imposing blanket rules for everyone.

Fourth Rule: Working from home when sick is not a sick day. Instead, it is a day to work from home, if you are able but not well enough to come to work. Sick days should be reserved for when you are sick and need to focus on getting better so you can go back to work, be that at home or at the office.

Organizationally, we need to recognize that illness of any sort needs to be dealt with more proactively, and with more nuance. As leaders, we need to put our people first and send sick employees home, and then support them in their recovery. COVID-19 or not, illness is no longer something we can just see as a cost of doing business.

Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist, and a leadership coach, based in Calgary Alberta

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