MONTREAL - A new poll that suggests more than a quarter of Quebec workers would go to the office with the H1N1 virus illustrates the urgent need for a new workplace culture that promotes a common-sense approach to the battle against swine flu, experts say.
In the poll, released Thursday, 25 per cent of respondents said they would forgo staying at home even if diagnosed with H1N1. One-third of the male employees surveyed said they would probably go to work if sick, rather than stay in bed.
The poll illustrates a deep-seated workplace culture that rewards a work-at-all-costs attitude and discourages employees from taking sick time, said Andrew Simor, head of microbiology and infectious diseases at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
"I don't think organizations as a whole have done an awful lot to emphasize the importance of the healthy work place - quite the opposite," Simor said.
"The history and the culture we have is that you're a bit of a wimp if you take time off from work because you're sick, and there are also factors related to concerns about sick benefits .... In light of the pandemic, I think people should be rethinking that."
It's a sentiment that was echoed by Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq Thursday, who reiterated that people should not come to work if they have H1N1.
"I think that's irresponsible. If you are sick stay home, said Aglukkaq, who was touring
a Saskatchewan First Nation to look at its flu pandemic plan. "Not only are you going to hurt yourself, you're going to hurt your family in passing H1N1, You're going to hurt your community, so think about it," she said.
"This is about life and death. This is about health and safety of people."
Of those surveyed, 45 per cent said their employer had not established a plan to deal with a flu outbreak, while 53 per cent said they had not changed their personal hygiene habits.
The poll, commissioned by Quebec's Ordre des conseillers en resources humaines agrees, was conducted Sept. 17 and 27 and surveyed 1,000 Quebec adults by telephone. It carries a margin of error of three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Simor said the results, while not surprising, suggest a slightly higher risk that the virus could spread more quickly.
"If people act on it the way they say they will, then obviously there is the potential for further spread of the virus in the setting of a pandemic," he said. The workplace is just one of many settings in which people could become infected, he added.
"The concept of the healthy work environment is an important one that we think is likely to have a benefit if we can convince people to be compliant and follow it."
Some jurisdictions are taking the threat of sick employees very seriously.
The Arizona Daily Star reported Wednesday that the Pima County Board of Supervisors has drafted a document saying employees can be disciplined or even fired for failing to go home from work if they're sick.
The policy reportedly requires that any county employee with a fever of 38 C or higher and one other symptom of flu or illness be sent home from work until the fever has been gone for at least a day.
In its online flu preparedness guide, the Public Health Agency of Canada advises those who are sick to "stay home from work or school until your symptoms are gone."
The guide also advocates for frequent hand-washing and the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer - measures the Quebec survey suggests have not gained traction with the public.
Simor said some Canadians may have been lulled into a sense of complacency by the relative mildness of most H1N1 cases to date, but urged people not to underestimate the potential danger.
"If you have large numbers of people that are infected, there's the potential for substantial numbers of people to have more serious complications as well," he said.
"There's no easy way to predict who's going to have mild disease and who's going to have more severe disease."