Flu Season Shows the Need for Workplace Flexibility

There are many people who are used to going to work when they are a bit under the weather. However, swine flu is changing that equation.
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The month of October is National Work Family Month. Families and workers are trying to succeed and survive in this challenging economy. Going into the Fall, the country is focused on health care. Everywhere we go we hear about it. The primary policy debates in Washington focus around health care reform. Throughout the country health care dominates town hall meetings.

Layered on top of this health care debate are the national preparations this month for a possible swine flu pandemic. Schools are setting up quarantine rooms. The government is preparing for the largest inoculation campaign in a generation. Public health officials are engaging in a public education campaign designed to minimize the potential impact of swine flu. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been issuing advice for how we all can reduce the likelihood of contracting swine flu. However, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that up to 40% of the U.S. workforce could be directly affected.

The swine flu outbreak has potential to create great disruptions for businesses, school, government offices and employers all throughout the nation.

There are many people who are used to going to work when they are a bit under the weather. However, swine flu is changing that equation. Even those who have traditionally prided themselves on going to work while a bit sick are having to rethink their plans and will be staying home now because there is a social price to be paid for going to work "sick" that wasn't there before. More people will notice and react negatively. So many more workers will be staying home.

Millions of businesses are developing contingency plans and continuity of operation plans to keep their businesses and operations going if and when critical employees are out. In just a few weeks, a significant number of American businesses could have their operations negatively affected by swine flu.

The swine flu draws attention for the critical need for more workplace flexibility for American businesses. Workplace flexibility is a concept that gives workers flexibility in the how, where and the quantity of hours they work.

Now is the time for a national conversation and effort to increase that flexibility. Flexible work arrangements such as telework can allow workers to be productive when they are not able to be in the office.

During the swine flu epidemic, it is likely that many workers will be sick enough that they will need to stay away from work, if only to keep their coworkers from being impacted, but they will be well enough to complete substantive work. Or many will be healthy themselves, but they will be needed at home to help care for a family member or a child. Schools across the nation will identify potentially sick children and many will have to stay at home for a week or more, so their working parents will be stuck at home.

During National Work & Family Month, our nation needs to recognize that putting in place legislation that meets the needs of workers and businesses by enhancing the flexibility of workplaces can make an important contribution during these months where the flu poses a risk to the American economy.

The H1N1 virus highlights in dramatic form the need for workplace flexibility in America. Americans need flexibility throughout the year and throughout their lives. Whether meeting the needs of families, caring for children, staying balanced or working longer in life, workplace flexibility is good for America during this flu season and beyond. We should act now to help support the economy during this time.