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 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, 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. Furthermore, the US CDC states that influenza costs the US roughly USD 10 billion in medical visits each year. Fortunately, employers can use a number of straightforward strategies to prevent the spread of influenza in the workplace.
What is 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 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 Current Trend of Seasonal Influenza in the Northern Hemisphere
The influenza season in the Northern Hemisphere generally begins in October and can last as late as May. According to the most recent influenza report from the WHO, dated Nov. 27, overall disease activity in North America continues to increase while activity in Europe remains low. The dominant circulating virus in North America is influenza A(H3N2), while influenza A(H3N2) and influenza B viruses are the primary strains circulating in Europe. Influenza A(H3N2) and influenza B viruses are covered by the traditional influenza vaccine.
Strategies to Prevent the Spread of Influenza in the Workplace:
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.
2. Encourage Proper Coughing Etiquette and Hand Washing
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.
3. 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.
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 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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