Flu blues Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2009

The flu is a malady that strikes nearly 20 percent of Americans each year. To many employers, this means increased absenteeism and lower productivity during the winter months, in particular January through March.

“When the flu hits a workplace, the healthy employee is pondering how to stay well and the sick co-worker is feeling lousy,” says Ginny Hridel, the product manager of health insurance and wellness programs for the Council of Smaller Enterprises (COSE). “By the end of the day productivity has dropped, your employees’ health has been compromised, and your bottom line may suffer.”

In an average year, when nearly 90 million people receive a flu shot, influenza kills 36,000 Americans, mostly elderly, and puts more than 200,000 in hospitals for prolonged stays. This year, the H1N1 virus could become even more severe, causing more absenteeism and a need for employers to add additional protective measures in the workplace.

Smart Business spoke with Hridel about the flu and how your company can be prepared for an outbreak.

How does the seasonal flu affect a company’s work force?

The U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that approximately four-fifths of mothers with school-age children and 51 percent of mothers with infants are in the paid work force. Daycare centers turn away sick youngsters during flu season, because the flu is easily passed from one child to another. That means working parents must leave their jobs to take sick kids home, and that’s where they have to stay until symptoms go away. The parents who care for the sick child may be at risk for contracting the flu virus as well.

Small, effective steps offer protection against the flu and, more importantly, a blueprint for managing soaring health care costs. The flu results in millions of days of lost work each year. The flu vaccine is an effective tool in minimizing your losses. A clinical study reports the following benefits of immunizing healthy workers without any other medical diagnoses between age 18 and 64:

  • 25 percent decrease in upper respiratory infections
  • 43 percent decrease in absenteeism from the flu
  • 36 percent decrease in absenteeism from all causes
  • 44 percent decrease in doctor visits for flu-like symptoms

The direct cost savings associated with the flu vaccine, including savings of direct medical costs and absenteeism, is $46.50 per each employee vaccinated. That does not include the employees with chronic medical conditions and the indirect cost of sick employees who report to work and have their productivity impaired by illness.

What are some additional action steps to consider if flu conditions become more severe?

It may seem obvious, but the first recommendation is for sick employees to stay home. Clean surfaces that are frequently touched by hand contact. Encourage employees to get vaccinated for the seasonal flu; employees at higher risk for flu complications should also get vaccinated for the novel H1N1 flu. Many employers provide on-site flu shots for their employees and their spouses.

How do businesses plan and prepare for the spread of flu in the workplace?

Review your current pandemic illness plan, or develop a new plan if you do not have one in place. A flu response plan should provide measures to protect workers and ensure that business operations can continue. Identify essential business functions and critical supply chains and plan for interruption. Create policies for flexible sick leave, worksites (telecommuting) and work hours. Establish a communication process for employees and business partners if your business risks being interrupted by the flu.

Share your plan with employees and explain what policies, leave options, pay and benefits are available. Check with your local health department about methods for dissemination of local outbreak information. Review your sick-leave policies, and be sure employees are re-educated about flexible options available to them.

How do I stay healthy at work?

Protect yourself and others around you by following some key steps. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle through adequate rest, diet, exercise and relaxation will boost your immunity to disease, and help you bounce back faster if you do catch a virus. Living healthier will decrease your susceptibility and increase your resistance to most viruses.

Wash your hands frequently. This seems like a no-brainer, but be sure to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, because germs spread this way. Cover your coughs or sneezes with a tissue, or cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow. And use ‘no-touch’ trash receptacles. Keep surfaces, such as commonly touched areas like phones, keyboards and doorknobs, clean. If you need to use a co-worker’s phone, desk or office, be sure to clean surfaces before and after use to avoid spreading more germs.

If you are sick with flu-like symptoms, stay home. Don’t spread the germs around to your co-workers. Symptoms include fever (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit), chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, tiredness, diarrhea and/or vomiting. Centers for Disease Control recommend that sick workers stay home for at least 24 hours after they are free of fever so it doesn’t spread.