Article Number 42
Sickness In The Workplace
This time of year (winter) brings its own form of unique challenges to the workplace due to the presence of a multitude of viruses and illnesses in the general community which invariably make their way into the workplace.
The most common diseases present at this time of year range from the common cold and general unpleasant viruses through to influenza (flu) which is one of the most serious of the viruses.
Unfortunately, people are exposed to contagious diseases at many levels of the community through casual contact with people and surfaces, and the viruses are easily picked up and spread.
Many parents and grandparents are exposed to viruses picked up from their children who attend day-care or school and they then attend work and spread these viruses further afield.
In major cities unfortunately, many employees travel to work on public transport and are in confined spaces with large numbers of the general public, many of whom may be in various stages of contagion.
It is particularly difficult to avoid close contact with others under these circumstances and there is a higher risk of picking up some type of cold or flu when using these types of transport.
It is particularly difficult for those employees who travel frequently on aeroplanes as the air, although frequently filtered, is recirculated and you are also forced to be in close proximity to people who may be sick or contagious or both.
The difficult balance that sick individual employees and employers face during the “flu season” is managing their work attendance and productivity while minimising risk to others.
All employees and workplaces are different, and the behaviour of individuals varies greatly with a number of typical groups such as:
- The martyr who never takes sick leave, and attends work no matter what symptoms they are suffering from and is a high risk to other
employees and clients.
- The serial sick leave offender who at the slightest symptom of illness is absent from work.
- The worker bee who just keeps on coming to work and doing their job while trying to avoid people who may pass on their illness to them.
In a workplace where an employee, or a number of employees, are exhibiting the symptoms of a contagious disease such as coughing, sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes and raspy throat, other employees have a right to be concerned that they may contract a virus or disease as part of their daily work.
Employees who have a medical condition or conditions such as asthma and associated respiratory illnesses, heart conditions, allergies and many other conditions may face significant risks from illnesses at this time of the year.
There are steps that an employer may take to attempt to get through this period with the least possible impact on both employees and the workplace and these steps include:
- Advising all employees to take appropriate precautions while at work such as coughing into their elbow, not leaving used tissues in the workplace, constantly washing hands and being aware of other employees and their proximity to others if unwell.
- Advising employees that if they are unwell and may be contagious that they should consider staying at home until the symptoms ease or disappear.
- Advising employees that they should take appropriate precautions when travelling on public transport and aeroplanes to minimise their likelihood of catching a virus (e.g. wearing a mask).
It is a delicate balancing act for employers as they do not technically have the right to direct an employee to leave work and go home based on an assessment that they may be too sick for the workplace, as each individual employee is entitled to attend work if they feel able to do so and are only entitled to take sick leave (for permanent employees) when too ill or injured to attend work.
However, the employer under the relevant Workplace health and Safety legislation has an obligation to provide a safe workplace for employees and to identify and manage risks at the workplace.
An employer may approach an employee who appears to be showing symptoms of a communicable disease and request that in the interests of the other employees and to maintain a safe workplace so that the illness does not spread and affect other employees and/or clients and customers, that the employee takes sick leave until the symptoms being displayed and the level of contagion are reduced or gone.
As a general guide, a basic definition of a communicable disease is a disease that is carried or transmitted from one person to another either directly or indirectly.
Such diseases are caused by a variety of microbes including bacteria, parasites, fungi and viruses.
At present the best way to protect all employees from these more common infections is through preventative strategies aimed at limiting exposure.
Employees should be advised that it is assumed and expected that each and every employee will exercise a duty of care to others.
Please note that this is general advice for information only and any application of legislation and/or Industrial Relations or contractual requirements may require professional advice to suit your individual circumstances.
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