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Opinion: Alter company sick leave policies now

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The World Health Organization has now designated the coronavirus as a global pandemic. What started in China is now in our state, as a Missouri woman acquired the virus on her trip to Italy. On her return, she spent time with friends in Chicago and took the train from there to St. Louis. The realities of transcontinental jet travel, confined spaces filled with people, and the dry air the virus seems to need means we will probably see it in all 50 states soon enough.

Experts say the best response to the coronavirus is hygiene and hibernation. They say wash your hands for at least 20 seconds; avoid touching your face and mouth; and contact your doctor and stay home if you develop flu-like symptoms like a fever, a cough, body aches, stomach problems and shortness of breath.

That’s the common sense approach to avoiding exposure or infecting others, which sounds easy on paper, but in reality offers many complications. We’ve already seen economic impacts on our U.S. stock markets, steep declines in air travel to foreign countries, cruise ship dramas, and the cancellations of sporting events, conferences and large public gatherings. It appears this will only get worse.

In response, megacompanies Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have asked workers to postpone business travel and work from home. This may be possible for large-scale technology companies, but what about work that does require a physical presence? We may have robots to load trucks, but someone has to turn on the lights in the warehouse and drive the loads to their destinations. Certain jobs just need people.

Business owners and operators must look at their longer-term sick day and employee leave policies with an eye toward more compassion, flexibility and empathy. We already know the U.S. lags behind the rest of “First World” countries when it comes to employees taking vacation days. Workaholism was invented here.

If you’re a manager or supervisor, you need to work with your human resources department to clarify or adapt your sick leave policies. Here’s some language to consider: “If you’re getting sick, stay home until you’re medically ready to come back to work. We will accommodate your workload by making all necessary adjustments, without harm to your career. If you are able to work from home, we’ll figure out a way. We will be creative in our use of teleconferences, webinars, reorienting our priorities and even extending paid sick time as necessary.”

Asking people to work from their homes is not as easy as it sounds. Some employees may not have strong internet connections, competent desktop computers or laptops with updated software. Allowing large numbers of employees to have complete network access could invite hacking problems and cybercrime. It may be necessary for companies to create a quick training and orientation program on working from home. While it sounds ideal, working from home can be challenging, stressful and even lonely. It’s not easy to go from working in a group environment to being by yourself.

Perspective is always useful when it comes to diseases known to decimate human beings. We’ve heard similar, well-meaning warnings before, about viruses that did not kill us all – including Zika, SARS, Ebola and bird flu. We have the best medical care in the world, the most epidemiologists and scientists in one country, more testing kits arriving daily, and new medicines to fight this one – just as we have done with the others.

Employers will need to be flexible, provide some staffing latitude and not punish employees who don’t come to work.

We are told the coronavirus will weaken as the weather warms and flu season in general dissipates. We must ride this out together – employer and employee – by changing how, when and where our work gets done. Life and business must go on.

Steve Albrecht is a Springfield-based trainer, human resources consultant and employee coach. He can be reached at drsteve@drstevealbrecht.com.

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