The telltale signs of autumn have arrived for many in the U.S. The temperature is cooler, the leaves are changing color — and the sounds of sneezes and coughs echoing through the office hallways may not be far behind.
The fall months traditionally serve as a time to promote flu prevention, and employers can play a key role in keeping their workforce — and their entire community — healthy as winter approaches.
Recent research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that 13 percent of the population gets sick from the flu bug in an average year, with nearly 20 percent (62 million people) being infected during an active flu season, according to a PLANSPONSOR report. For U.S. businesses, loss of productivity from flu-related illness can cost more than $10 billion, according to several studies.
For employers, the highly contagious influenza virus can be especially dangerous because many workers try to “tough it out” and come to work when ill, a new poll finds. Seventy percent of employees admit they’ve gone to work sick, according to a Staples Advantage survey reported by PLANSPONSOR. These workers can pose a serious risk to the rest of the workforce by spreading sickness and may worsen the effects of a rough flu season.
If employees get ill, the company should provide them time off to encourage them to stay home and recover fully, said Alan Baker of the American Public Health Association in a recent BNA report. This is especially vital for companies with employees who interact in person with the public, Baker said.
Another key asset in combatting a flu outbreak is to prevent it from happening by promoting vaccinations and making them convenient, Roslyn Stone of Corporate Wellness Inc. told BNA. The best course of action, Stone said, involves creating a free, on-site clinic and allowing workers to get the vaccination on company time.
Healthcare of Arizona, has aggressively promoted flu shots with positive results, according to the BNA report. Marianne Young and Marcia Hick, who chair the company’s flu committee, said their program achieved a staff immunization level of 49 percent last year. About 30 percent is considered a good rate, according to Stone.
“This is the secret,” Hick and Young wrote BNA. “We go to the employee. Even in our health care centers, we have carts travel from department to department, or set up in a convenient location. There is no cost. Wait times are usually less than five to 10 minutes.”
If an on-site clinic is not feasible, Stone suggests mailing “flu gift cards” that allow workers to get the vaccination off-site at a time of their choosing.
Unfortunately, flu clinics cannot stamp out the risks entirely. Experts suggest promoting a few other healthy habits among workers, such as:
Using hand sanitizers and washing hands frequently.
Cleaning work areas, including keyboards. The Staples study noted that only 15 percent of employees clean their work area at least once a day, and less than 10 percent said they used disinfectants to clean their surfaces.
Appointing someone to be a “flu champion” who can educate their fellow workers and drum up participation rates for vaccinations.
Making managers lead by example. If they get sick, they should stay home, as well.