Winter bugs can hammer a small business’s productivity, so it pays to help your people stay healthy — and to understand sick leave rules.

Sick leave absences cost the country more than six million work days throughout 2014 — an average 4.7 days for each employee — at a cost of $1.4 billion, according to the annual Wellness in the Workplace survey.

Stay home

The most effective way to protect your business against winter absence costs is to encourage sick staff to take time off. This may seem contrary, but bugs can be highly contagious — one person taking a day or two of sick leave will help prevent passing it on to other employees, who then need time off to recover.

Despite knowing that coughs and sneezes spread diseases, more than a third of New Zealanders go to work when under the weather, according to the Wellness in the Workplace survey.

You might be guilty of coming to work while ill, fearing everything will grind to halt if you’re not on deck. It’s time for a rethink — if you don’t feel you can take time off, can you work from home while contagious?

Vaccinate against the flu

Flu jabs are another way to reduce working time lost to winter ills. Consider paying for your staff to be vaccinated, either through their medical centre or organise a group vaccination session at your workplace.

Some of your people may be eligible for free flu jabs, eg pregnant women and those with diabetes or chronic asthma — see who’s eligible on the government’s Fightflu website.

Flu in the workplace — Flufight
Influenza — Ministry of Health

Influenza-like illnesses are worse than just bad colds, and account for 45% of illness days for unvaccinated people each winter, Fightflu figures show.

Encourage good health habits

It may seem like you have no choice about catching bugs, but the healthier people are, the less likely they are to get sick. Things you can do include:

  • Stay hydrated: Drinking water is essential for good health, especially when the heating’s cranked up. Consider having water coolers and encourage staff to fill up often.
  • Clean hands: Encourage staff to wash and dry their hands often to stop bugs spreading.
  • Keep fit: Fitter people get sick less often. Think about staff health challenges, eg fun runs and social sports teams.
  • Eat well: Encourage staff to eat healthily at work to give their immune systems a boost. Think about having a communal fruit bowl and offering snacks like nuts over chippies at work drinks.
  • Get outside: Exposure to sun for even short periods every day boosts vitamin D levels, an important nutrient for immunity. If you’re office-based, encourage lunchtime walks in the sun.

Sick leave rules

Winter is the peak time for being off sick from work, so it’s important you know the rules. Sick leave relies on a good faith relationship — an employer must be confident an employee is sick, while employees need to know they’ll be supported to get well.

The first step is to have a leave policy. The Sick leave clause in our Employment Agreement Builder sets out what your employees are entitled to, and also includes tips on creating a leave policy.

What you need to know

Once employees have worked for you for six months, they’re entitled to at least five days paid sick leave a year — or more if you want. You must also:

  • carry over unused sick leave to the next year
  • let employees use sick leave to care for a spouse, partner, child, elderly parent or other dependent
  • pay staff their normal pay for days they’re on sick leave.

If an employee isn’t yet eligible for sick leave, or doesn’t have enough left to cover their illness, discuss the alternatives such as taking:

  • sick leave in advance
  • annual leave
  • unpaid leave.

Sick leave —

Proof of illness

If you need proof an employee is ill or injured, you can require them to get a doctor’s certificate. They choose which doctor, but who pays depends on how long they’ve been off sick:

  • You pay if they’ve been off sick less than three full days in a row.
  • They pay if it’s three or more calendar days in a row.

Think carefully before you ask for proof. It’s better for staff relations if you only do this with reasonable grounds to suspect an employee’s illness isn’t genuine.

See the Medical certificate clause in our Employment Agreement Builder. While you don’t need this clause in your contracts to ask for proof of illness of injury, it has useful tips and common mistakes.