The 2017-2018 flu season is shaping up as one the worst in recent memory. Widespread outbreaks have been reported in every state except Hawaii, although some regions have been hit harder than others. Some states report that flu cases have tripled or more since last year. Alabama has declared a state of emergency.
While the greatest concern is for the wellbeing of individuals, this flu season will almost certainly have a significant economic impact. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates the flu costs U.S. businesses more than $87 billion annually and is responsible for the loss of nearly 17 million workdays each season. Those numbers are likely to go higher this year.
Businesses actually can play a key role in stemming the spread. By adopting some good-sense workplace practices, you can encourage behaviors that will limit the spread of the virus and help your workforce remain healthy and productive. Here are a few practices to consider:
Encourage vaccination. Although the flu vaccine is typically only about 40 percent effective in preventing the flu, it will usually ease symptoms in those who get the virus. Even this late in the season, a flu shot can deliver protection for the next few months. Organizations should also consider hosting an onsite clinic to make it more convenient for employees.
Encourage sick workers to stay home. The single best way to avoid the flu is by staying away from sick people! Make sure that employees don’t feel pressure to come to work when they aren’t well. People with fever, body aches, cough and other symptoms need to understand they’ll be doing everyone a favor by staying home for a day or two.
Consider ‘social distancing.’ Allowing employees to work from home will reduce in-person interactions and minimize the spread of the flu in the office. Flexible scheduling and staggered shifts can also limit exposure.
Keep work spaces clean. Flu viruses typically survive on surfaces for two to eight hours, so encourage employees to clean desks, work surfaces and lunch areas regularly. Provide disinfectants and disposable towels in common areas and high-traffic areas.
Communicate and educate. Post flyers encouraging employees to wash their hands frequently with soap and warm water, and keep their hands away from their eyes, nose and mouth. Encourage proper coughing and sneezing etiquette — cover with a tissue, hand or sleeve.
Make a plan. Since you can’t predict which critical operations or essential staff could be out of commission for an extended period due to the flu, it is important to create a preparedness plan. Identify essential employees and business functions required to maintain business operations, and make plans on how to maintain communications with those who perform essential tasks.
Use technology. Collaboration tools can enable employees to communicate and share files without face-to-face meetings. Cloud services and secure remote access ensure that employees can get to the applications and data they need from any location. Online meeting platforms enable conferencing with colleagues, customers and partners. These tools can enable employees who are slightly ill, or those with sick family members, to continue working remotely.
While the flu virus is a significant public health risk, it also has the potential to impact business productivity and performance. Organizations can take a number of steps to mitigate and manage the challenges. Creating a contingency plan and encouraging practices that contribute to a safe and healthy work environment will help ensure the wellbeing of your workforce and your business.