The influenza (or flu) season has begun in the Northern Hemisphere, where flu activity will continue to increase in the coming months. Even though the flu is a highly contagious and potentially serious disease, many employers do not recognize it as a significant threat and likely suffer losses to their bottom line as a result. In fact, the US Department of Health & Human Services estimates that nearly USD 7 billion dollars are lost in productivity every year due to employee absenteeism because of the flu.1 Furthermore, the US CDC states that influenza costs the US roughly USD 10 billion in medical visits each year.2
Fortunately, employers can use a number of straightforward strategies to prevent the spread of influenza in the workplace. These include raising awareness about seasonal influenza, promoting proper hygiene, keeping the workplace clean, encouraging employees to receive their annual flu vaccination, and adopting flexible leave plans.
1. Raise Awareness about Seasonal Influenza
Employees who believe they are at risk of becoming infected with influenza, and who understand the consequences associated with influenza infection, are more likely to alter their behaviors in order to reduce the risk of infection. Therefore, it is important that employers educate workers about how influenza is spread, what symptoms the flu causes, and the potential complications related to influenza infection. This information should be communicated to employees in a number of ways, such as through emails and by placing flyers or posters in high-traffic areas, to maximize visibility.
Symptoms of influenza:
- Coughing, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, sometimes fever or feeling feverish/chills. People usually recover from the flu in a few days, and most infections resolve within two weeks. However, some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, may experience more severe complications that require additional medical care or even hospitalization.
- Complications associated with influenza
- Some individuals with influenza will develop complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus or ear infections. These complications can be life-threatening and are more common in individuals with certain chronic medical conditions.
2. Encourage Proper Coughing Etiquette and Hand Washing
Influenza is primarily spread by droplets released when infected individuals cough, sneeze, or speak. Less commonly, individuals can contract influenza by touching a surface or object contaminated by the influenza virus and then touching their own mouth, eyes, or nose. Individuals with influenza are contagious for a period beginning one day before the onset of symptoms and up to five-to-seven days after symptoms begin. This means that a person can transmit the flu to others before he or she even realizes they are sick. Therefore, it is extremely important for employers not only to teach and remind employees the proper way to cover coughs and sneezes but also to remind them to regularly wash their hands throughout the flu season.
- Proper coughing and sneezing etiquette:
- Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and dispose of the used tissues in "no-touch" wastebaskets.
- If a tissue is not available, cough and sneeze into your elbow or upper sleeve.
- Basic hand hygiene:
- Wash hands after blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, or coming into contact with mucus or contaminated objects and surfaces.
- To wash hands appropriately: apply soap and water, rub soapy hands together for at least 20 seconds, rinse hands with water, and dry completely.
- If soap and water are not available, using an alcohol-based hand rub is a helpful interim measure until hand washing is possible. When using an alcohol-based hand rub, apply liquid to the palm of the hand, cover all surfaces of the hand with the liquid, and rub hands together until dry.
3. Keep the Workplace Clean
As previously mentioned, the flu can spread on contaminated surfaces or objects. Therefore, it is extremely important that employers develop procedures and policies that ensure all commonly touched work surfaces, work areas, and equipment - for example, telephones, doorknobs, lunch areas, copy machines, etc. - are cleaned frequently. Routine cleaning agents are sufficient to disinfect surfaces against influenza, but employers should provide easy access to cleaning supplies.
4. Encourage Annual Flu Vaccinations
Even though the effectiveness of influenza vaccines depend on how well-matched the vaccine is to active influenza viruses, influenza vaccination remains an important additional defense against influenza infection. However, vaccination is arguably the most difficult measure to implement due to misconceptions about the influenza vaccine. For example, many people believe that the influenza vaccine makes people sick. In reality, the standard influenza vaccine contains virus that has been inactivated and is, therefore, unable to make people since. Vaccinations via nasal spray contain only live but weakened virus that is likewise unlikely to make people sick. In both cases, potential side effects are very minimal, including possible soreness at the site of injection, low-grade fever, and/or muscle aches. These temporary symptoms arise as a consequence of the body producing antibodies necessary to fight future influenza virus exposure.
Furthermore, many non-influenza illnesses have symptoms that can be described as “flu-like.” As a result, individuals may incorrectly attribute such symptoms to a recent vaccination instead of illness due to another infectious agent. Influenza viruses frequently undergo genetic changes that can decrease the effectiveness of prior vaccines. Thus, vaccine manufacturers reassess vaccine formulations every year to improve vaccine effectiveness. As a result, vaccination, which begins to protect against influenza infection within two-to-three weeks of immunization, must be received every year to be protective.
Employers should consider hosting a flu vaccination clinic at their place of business. The US CDC recommends providing vaccines to employees at little-to-no cost and promoting vaccination within the local community. If hosting a flu vaccination clinic is not plausible, employers should consider notifying their employees of local pharmacies and clinics offering influenza vaccinations. Since many pharmacies and clinics are only open during normal business hours, employers should consider allowing their employees the time to go to these clinics while still “on the clock.”
Seasonal influenza, also known as the flu, is a very contagious and potentially serious disease. The flu season in the Northern Hemisphere generally begins in October and can last as late as May. During this period, the flu can cause widespread business disruptions resulting in financial losses. Employers can mitigate such losses by implementing measures that will help prevent the spread of the influenza virus within the workplace: raising awareness about seasonal influenza, promoting proper hygiene, keeping the workplace clean, encouraging employees to receive their annual flu vaccination, and adopting flexible leave plans.
To help keep your workplace well this flu season, we've created this handy infographic: Top 6 Tips for Workplace Wellness this Flu Season. Download it now and share with your colleagues!