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November 16, 2016 / Molly Moseley

Employees working while ill? Maybe it’s the PTO policy

When the temperature drops across the country, sniffles and sneezes begin and mark the official beginning of the cold and flu season. While an average of 5–20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu each year, according to the CDC Foundation, even more will get colds and other viruses that slow life to a halt.

Whether it’s the flu or another ailment, workers may call in sick to take care of themselves or their family members who fall ill. Most employers agree that people should stay home when sick for two important reasons: to get better quickly and to prevent the spread of illness to other employees. This ultimately helps to reduce backlogs and keep productivity as high as possible.

One great way to encourage employees to stay home when ill is to provide a paid time off benefit. There are three main ways companies approach sick time, and each has its pros and cons.

1. Separate sick and vacation time

The traditional approach to PTO is to separate sick time from vacation time. Because certain days are designated for sick periods, employees may be more likely to stay home because these days can be used only when ill. However, this also means healthy employees may call in sick when they aren’t ill because they want to use this benefit before it expires. Furthermore, it can be more complex for HR to track PTO when separated into different categories.

2. Lump sum PTO

Many companies are switching to the lump PTO approach. This gives employees the flexibility to use paid time off as they choose, which can be a perk. The drawback, though, is that employees would much rather use this benefit for a vacation or another fun event, so they may be more likely to come into the office when ill in order to avoid using up a precious PTO day. This could cause illness to spread to other people and drain productivity.

3. Unlimited sick time

Unlimited sick time is the holy grail from an employee’s perspective. Being able to stay home when ill without concern about financial or workplace repercussions is a huge benefit that will draw the attention of incoming talent, all while boosting loyalty among current employees. But it takes a special company culture to make this work — one based on trust and the assumption that employees will be responsible and reasonable about their choices.

Ultimately what works for one company may not for another, so there’s no one-size-fits-all PTO strategy. Fortunately, if a program isn’t working, the start of the year is a great time to evaluate and make adjustments.

Despite what a company chooses to offer, good communication about benefits and the importance of staying home when ill can be highly effective. What’s more, leadership must model desired behaviors; this means no sniffling, hacking, miserable-looking bosses working late hours. When members of leadership take care of themselves, employees will do the same when it’s time to go home and get some R&R (and maybe that flu shot).