Experts advise nurses to stay home when flu symptoms strike

By | 2021-05-07T14:42:19-04:00 March 2nd, 2018|2 Comments

The world relies on nurses to care for the sick daily, whether it’s an ICU nurse monitoring vital signs or a pediatric nurse administering medications and delivering those lovely ice chips. But what happens when nurses feel a tinge of flu-like symptoms arriving?

The answer is easy — stay home, said Vicki Allen, MSN, RN, CIC, FAPIC, director of infection control at CaroMont Regional Medical Center in Gastonia, N.C. She also serves on the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology Communications Committee.

“The expectation is, if you are sick, you don’t come to work because we don’t want you to compromise [the health of] patients and other staff,” said Allen.

Hospitals have policies in place to help remind nurses and other staff to stay home when influenza-like illness strikes, Allen said. And it’s important to look at those policies regularly to ensure they are working.

“We review the policies annually,” Allen said. “We typically start looking at this in July or August.”

Flu activity typically kicks in around October and November, it peaks between December and February and could linger until May, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Furthermore, CDC reported flu activity in 2017-18 at its highest in since the 2009 pandemic in the U.S.

Working with flu symptoms — But why?

Keeping influenza-like illness contained is no easy task, especially when nurses and other healthcare staff bring it into the workplace. Seems like a no-brainer — stay home when sick. Instead, people tend to muscle through illness at work for various reasons, said Sophia Chiu, MD, MPH, who co-authored the study, “Working with influenza-like illness: Presenteeism among U.S. healthcare personnel during the 2014-2015 influenza season,” published November 2017 in the American Journal of Infection Control.

“Hospital-based HCPs had the highest frequency of people working with ILI (49.3%), compared to HCPs at long-term care facilities (28.5%),” the study authors wrote.

More research is needed to understand why the large gap in these numbers exist when comparing both types of facilities, but Chui said it could correlate to the distribution of staff type in hospitals versus long-term care facilities.

Based on the study, “Physicians and pharmacists had the highest percentage of going to work with ILI, these are the results by setting,” she said.

And the most common reason people came to work while sick was they felt capable of performing their job duties, said Chiu. Others reported that they did not feel “that sick.”

How a person feels is one thing, but Chiu reminds everyone about the importance of being symptom free for 24 hours before returning to work. And that means maintaining normal body temperature for a full 24 hours without fever reducing medications, per CDC guidelines. Otherwise, you could be contagious and put patients at unnecessary risk — something that poses even greater risk to elderly patients or people with suppressed immune systems, such as a cancer patient, Chiu said.

Flu-like symptoms typically last about two days on average, according to the CDC. The grey area is the duration when you can still spread the virus.

“Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick,” according to the CDC.

Nurses who store up their sick leave could be better positioned to prevent the spread of ILI simply because they can stay home without as many repercussions.

Looking at study findings, some respondents cited financial concerns around taking too much time off, a factor that influenced their decision to not call in sick, Chiu said. Also, the concern over lost pay was more prevalent among respondents in long-term care facilities, she added.

Eyes on policy change

Getting back to work after calling in sick can be cumbersome for some nurses, especially if they need an authorized medical check with a clean bill of health upon their return.

Administrators at CaroMont Regional Medical Center recognized their health check policy needed some tweaking. After much discussion with key stakeholders, they decided to update their policy that required health checks for employees returning to work after a bout of flu, Allen said.

“We change policies according to the needs of our staff,” she said. “We want to make it easy for an employee to call off and also to return to work.”

By fall 2017, after many meetings and discussions, they successfully changed the policy that once required health checks associated with ILI.

“We come together with a committee which includes physicians, and we edit and revise the policy, it’s a multi-collaborative approach,” Allen said. “Then we present it to a formal committee that makes the final decision.”

And there is an important caveat in CaroMont’s policy. Health checks are still required when nurses, doctors and other staff have had any other communicable disease. In that case, health checks are mandatory before staff can return to work, Allen said.

Freelance writer Elise Oberliesen contributed to the writing and research of this article.

What factors keep you from calling in sick?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Courses Related to ‘Self-Care for Nurses’

WEB307: Nurse, Take Care of Thy Self
 (1 contact hr)

Nursing is a stressful profession! Nurses are known for taking care of others at the cost of their own wellbeing. Lack of self-care can lead to compassion fatigue, personal health issues, and a lack of work life balance. When a nurse takes the time to care for themselves, both their colleagues and patients will reap the benefit. As easy as it sounds, it can be hard to create a work life balance, exercise, and be a nurse role model. When pursuing continuing education or a new professional role, self-care and time management are key to helping yourself be successful.

CE430: Safer Patient Handling Saves Nurses’ Backs
 (1 contact hr)

The American Nurses Association’s 2011 Health and Safety Survey found that nearly all nurses have worked while suffering from musculoskeletal pain, and 80% said it was a frequent occurrence. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing assistants had an incidence rate of injury of 372.5 in 2014, a decrease from 392.8 in 2013. Nurses ranked fifth among all occupations for highest incidence rates of musculoskeletal disorders resulting in days away from work, with 11,610 total cases. Nursing assistants reported 23,390 cases — the second highest of all occupations. \\”Injuries and illnesses resulting from overexertion and bodily reaction accounted for 55% of the cases occurring to nursing assistants and decreased to 21,430 cases in 2014. The incidence rate for overexertion and bodily reaction for nursing assistants was 204.6 — more than five times greater than for all workers.\\”

CE692: Compassion Fatigue
 (1 contact hr)

Compassion fatigue (CF) occurs when a caregiver experiences what experts call “secondary traumatic stress” in reaction to caring for those who are themselves suffering from traumatic events. Although caregivers don’t actually experience the event (as is the case with post-traumatic stress disorder), they experience the event emotionally by caring for the patient. CF has become more widely recognized as a problem that many nurses face. In a study of 1,100 bedside nurses at a major tertiary care center, CF was found to be associated with a number of factors and to be significantly prevalent among the nurses. CF creates physical and emotional distress, but it’s not just a personal issue — it’s a patient safety issue as well. Research has shown that CF may increase the risk of medical errors. This module will help nurses prevent, identify and manage compassion fatigue.


Discover how can help you find your next dream job.
Just sign up and wait to be paired with your perfect match.

About the Author:



  1. Avatar
    Regina March 21, 2018 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    Hard to stay at home when facilities are punishing with “occurrences.” Are staff doctors asked how many times they call out? As a matter of fact, before nurses are hired one of the first questions is how many times have you called out in your last job or the past year. Until hospitals and other healthcare facilities address this ongoing problem in their policies, nurses are not going to call out. As a matter of fact, look for stories on auxiliary and nursing staff fired for missing work. There are many. Not to mention, nurses are generally a very dedicated bunch and don’t really want to miss their shift so when they do they are probably really sick.

  2. Avatar
    Elaine November 24, 2019 at 6:28 pm - Reply

    I agree with Regina in the previous post. If I am able to muscle through a shift sick with meds onboard I’m going to because calling out is penalized with “occurrences”. I may have no call-outs, but have been 1 or 2 minutes late enough times that a call out could put me into disciplinary action. Hospitals now are just giant corporations who expect employees to be flexible to serve the corporation ( though they try to say it’s for the patients) yet the corporations don’t yield to make happy, healthy employees who desire to extend loyalty to the hospital.

Leave A Comment