The flu epidemic has been plaguing many and has employers scrambling to come up with ways to keep sick employees at home. While a company can’t force workers to stay out of the office they can create an environment that makes it easy for them not to come in when they are sick.

“If they come to work they run the risk of spreading their cold or flu virus which can have an impact on the ability to run that particular department or operation,” says Nim Traeger, vice president of risk control at Travelers, the insurance company. “We try to encourage employers to have methods so employees can continue to be productive and contribute but don’t have to come into the office.”

According to experts in human resources , in order for employees to feel comfortable staying home from work there has to be an atmosphere where calling out sick isn’t frowned upon. After all, if it’s looked down upon or people are penalized for calling out sick, nobody is going to stay home out of fear of retribution.

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Creating an encouraging environment means the company’s leaders and managers have to communicate proactively to all the employees that if they are sick it’s ok to stay home, says Paul McDonald, senior executive director of Robert Half International, the staffing company. “Leaders and managers need to reinforce the message either in meetings, teleconferences, email or in the internal blog,” says McDonald. “The company has to make sure the message is repeated on an ongoing basis.” The heads of the company also have to practice what they preach, which means if they are ill they too must stay home.

To further reinforce the message, employers can’t be afraid to send employees home if they do show up to work coughing or sneezing all over everybody, says McDonald. Recognizing employees that do make the responsible decision to stay home can also underscore the importance of not coming to work sick, says McDonald. He says a company should thank the employee in a public manner be it via an email or a posting on the company intranet. If there are repeat offenders, those people that come to work every other month with a cold, McDonald says it may be necessary for human resources to step in.

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Educating employees on when it makes sense to stay home can also go a long way in getting them not to come to work. According to Traeger companies can provide employees with access to the Center for Disease Control or CDC guidelines regarding when and how long to stay home as well as tips to stay healthy and recover quickly. “Employee education can reduce flu” and how much it spreads, says Traeger. Employees should be well versed in ways to prevent getting sick like washing their hands frequently and using sanitizers on common work areas. Traeger says companies can even offer flu shots as a way to keep the flu at bay during the winter months.

Hand in hand with encouraging employees to stay out of the office when they are sick is providing the tools for them to work from home if they feel up to it. That means companies have to give employees laptops or remote access to its network. If the employee is well enough to come to work but he or she is still sick Traeger says a company could utilize audio and video conferencing and online collaboration tools instead of holding face to face meetings.

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Since sickness is inevitable, especially during cold and flu seasons, companies have to have a plan in place to deal with widespread absenteeism. “You have to look closely at the departments and organization and see if it can handle the flu epidemic,” says McDonald at Robert Half. Employers not only have to look at enabling employees to work from home but also if it has supplemental staff or workers it can move around to pick up the slack or if it has access to temporary staff if necessary.

“Employers have to understand what their critical operations are, who their critical employees are what redundancy they build in to continue to have tasks completed,” says Traeger.

This article was originally published on Glassdoor.

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