According to flu.gov, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ website, close to 111 million workdays are lost as a result of flu season, costing approximately $7 billion per year in paid sick days and lost productivity. And that’s just your typical productivity-sucking flu season. Occasionally, a new influenza virus emerges, causing a more severe, global outbreak or pandemic. When that happens, the impact on workplaces around the world is even more significant.
The U.S. Department of Labor describes the type of disruption a severe flu season can cause quite bluntly:
- Absenteeism – A pandemic could affect as many as 40 percent of the workforce during periods of peak influenza illness. Employees could be absent because they are sick, must care for sick family members or for children if schools or day care centers are closed, are afraid to come to work, or the employer might not be notified that the employee has died.
- Change in patterns of commerce – During a pandemic, consumer demand for items related to infection control is likely to increase dramatically, while consumer interest in other goods may decline. Consumers may also change the ways in which they shop as a result of the pandemic. Consumers may try to shop at off-peak hours to reduce contact with other people, show increased interest in home delivery services, or prefer other options, such as drive-through service, to reduce person-to-person contact.
- Interrupted supply/delivery – Shipments of items from those geographic areas severely affected by the pandemic may be delayed or cancelled.
Fortunately, this year most of the flu activity so far is presenting with known strains of the virus. Since that can change rapidly, here are some important actions employers can take to minimize the negative effects of flu season in the workplace and to help employees stay healthy.
An Ounce of Prevention
The best way to reduce the effect of flu season is to help your employees avoid infection:
- Encourage employees to get an influenza vaccination every year.
- Limit the amount of time employees spend in heavily crowded situations and encourage them to avoid close contact.
- Send sick employees home.
- Educate employees about practices that will reduce transmission of the flu virus, including:
- washing their hands frequently with soap and water or with hand sanitizer if there is no soap or water available;
- avoiding touching their noses, mouths, and eyes;
- covering their coughs and sneezes with a tissue;
- coughing and sneezing into their upper sleeves if tissues are not available; and
- always washing their hands or using a hand sanitizer after they cough, sneeze or blow their noses.
- Provide customers and the public with tissues and trash receptacles, and with a place to wash or disinfect their hands.
- Keep work surfaces, telephones, computer equipment and other frequently touched surfaces and office equipment clean.
- Discourage your employees from using other employees’ phones, desks, offices or other work tools and equipment.
- Promote healthy lifestyles, including good nutrition, exercise, and smoking cessation because a person’s overall health impacts their body’s immune system and can affect their ability to fight off, or recover from, an infectious disease.
The best way to tackle flu season is to get out in front of it and be prepared. And there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put together “Make It Your Business To Fight The Flu: A Toolkit for Businesses and Employers” and a number of other resources to help you plan for and reduce the impact of the flu at work. The flu.gov website also provides a wealth of information for employers, including information on vaccination and prevention, as well as planning tools to help employers be better prepared in the event of a severe flu season. The flu is coming–get ready!
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Photo credit: Photo by David Castillo Dominici, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
 Adapted from OSHA: Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic https://www.osha.gov/Publications/influenza_pandemic.html#organizations_protect