Flu Season is Back. How Nonprofits Should Prepare

Flu season is back. Flu activity most often peaks in February and can last into May. In New England and across the nation, employers are gearing up for the yearly problems that come with this time of year. The most recent weekly U.S. report from the CDC shows that cases of the flu are increasing. Now is the time to make sure that your policies both prepare your organization for and act as preventatives against the illnesses.

Flu season is back. Flu activity most often peaks in February and can last into May. In New England and across the nation, employers are gearing up for the yearly problems that come with this time of year. The most recent weekly U.S. report from the CDC shows that cases of the flu are increasing. Now is the time to make sure that your policies both prepare your organization for and act as preventatives against the illnesses.

What This Means For Your Organization

For employers, especially in small organizations with limited staff, reviewing and preparing your sick leave policies and contingency plans now will help you when the flu hits your organization. 

The most important thing health officials recommend is to encourage your staff and constiuents to get a flu vaccination and if they are sick to stay home.

That advice seems pretty obvious. For employers, though, enabling staff to stay at home can be difficult. Especially in our world of mission-based work people often stay on the job even when they aren’t well. We believe in what we are doing. We imagine that the work won’t get done without us. And we worry that the populations we serve, the wrongs we seek to right, social justice in general will suffer, if we stay in bed.

As employers, none of us set out to intentionally create a culture where our work is more important than the people who do it. And yet, we all too frequently find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. We almost always have too much work and too few people to do it.

Take Staff (and Constituent) Well-Being Seriously

Yet, we have a real responsibility to our staff, not just those who are ill but those who are well, too. From a very short-term perspective, a day-to-day or hour-to-hour one, we might be able to convince ourselves that someone’s aches and pains aren’t as critical as our immediate goals–especially when they agree. But just like in other aspects of our work, we need to take a longer term perspective.

Our staff members need to know that we take their well-being seriously. If we treat people like a means to an end, even unintentionally, most will eventually feel undervalued and burnt out no matter how committed they are to the cause. We all lose when experienced and talented employees leave our organizations and our sector.

And sick staff, in the office or in the field, spread illness. The more people who become sick, the less effective we can be. Allowing staff to put others at risk sends a message to everyone that as employers we are less concerned about them and their loved ones than we are about our work. 

There can be serious risks attached to the flu. It may not be apparent to us, but some of our staff, some of their family members and certainly some of the people we serve, may have compromised immune systems or be in other high risk categories. What are simple sniffles and coughs to one person might be life threatening to another.

Review and Align Your Sick Leave Policies

So what should we do? First, we need to communicate our expectations to staff: If you are sick, stay home. Then we need to show them that we mean it. What do our sick leave policies say? If someone has used all of their sick time will they be penalized, either monetarily or otherwise, if they are out anyway?

Tell staff, up front, how you intend to handle these situations. Leave time practices may be waived during flu season. Or you may provide opportunities for staff to make up time at a later date.

And don’t require doctors’ notices. Physicians’ offices are, for the most part, keeping people with flu-like symptoms away. They don’t want other patients to be infected. And flu-related complaints may over-tax many systems preventing others who need care from getting prompt attention.

Remember that parents may be disproportionately affected. They may need to stay home to care for sick children. And in spring 2009 a number of schools closed for a full week.

Prepare for Contingencies

Identify your most critical business functions (like payroll, for instance) and create back-up plans if they don’t already exist. Involve staff in these discussions and then communicate these plans to everyone. Not only will doing so ensure that people understand their roles, it will also reassure employees that the sky won’t fall if they need to stay home.

You might consider stocking meeting rooms, copy stations and other common space with hand sanitizer and tissue. The CDC website provides helpful posters and other tips. Check out the information yourself and encourage your staff to do the same.


Lyn Freundlich provides human resources coaching and consulting services to non-profit organizations. She also trains supervisors and accidental human resources practitioners through our capacity building training series and in their own organizations, networks and associations. Contact trainings@tsne.org for more information about these services.

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