Influenza or flu season has begun in the Northern Hemisphere, where flu activity will continue to increase in the coming months. Though the flu is a highly contagious and can cause 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, billions of dollars are lost in productivity every year due to employee absenteeism because of the flu. Fortunately, employers can use a number of straightforward strategies to prevent the spread of influenza in the workplace.
About Seasonal Influenza
Seasonal influenza, also known as the flu, is a very contagious viral disease that spreads through droplets created when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. There are several viruses that cause influenza - including H1N1, H3N2, and influenza B. Influenza vaccines are available and must be received every year just before or during flu season to be protective. Protection against infection typically begins within two-to-three weeks of immunization. It is important to note that the flu cannot be treated with antibiotics since it is caused by a virus.
The flu season in the Northern Hemisphere generally begins in October and can last as late as May, with disease activity generally peaking during February. In the Southern Hemisphere, the opposite is true: influenza season occurs May to October, with disease activity peaking in August. Flu seasons also occur in the tropics and subtropics, but their timing is less sharply defined. The World Health Organization (WHO) makes two vaccine formulations annually, which are tailored to each hemisphere; individuals traveling from one hemisphere to the other during peak flu activity should consider obtaining the influenza vaccine for their destination hemisphere.
Symptoms of Influenza
Symptoms of the flu commonly include fever, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, tiredness, body aches, and chills. It is important to note that not all people with the flu will have a fever. Symptoms typically appear 2 days after exposure but can develop up to 4 days after exposure. The flu can lead to serious medical complications and even death in some individuals. The elderly, pregnant women, young children, and people with medical conditions like lung disease and heart disease are at greatest risk of complications.
Strategies to Prevent the Spread of the Flu in the Workplace
Employees who believe they are at risk of becoming infected with the flu, and who understand the consequences associated with influenza infection, are more likely to alter their behaviors in order to reduce the risk of infection. Employers, in this respect, should consider the following.
- Raise awareness about flu season. 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.
- Encourage proper coughing etiquette and hand washing. It is extremely important for employers not only to teach and remind employees of the proper way to cover coughs and sneezes but also to remind them to regularly wash their hands throughout the flu season.
- Keep the workplace clean. Since the flu can spread on contaminated surfaces or objects, 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.
- Encourage annual flu vaccinations. Even though the effectiveness of influenza vaccines depends 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 a virus that has been inactivated and is, therefore, unable to make people sick. 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.
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.
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.
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