A particularly virulent influenza strain, H3N2, was responsible for a record number of illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths this winter.
U.S. health officials say that flu-related hospitalizations were the highest they’ve been in 10 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were almost 82 laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated hospitalizations per 100,000 population, breaking records set during the last severe flu season in 2014-2015.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said the problem was exacerbated during the 2017-2018 flu season because the vaccines distributed across the country had mutated and were not effective against H3N2. The overall effectiveness of the vaccines was only 30 percent.
Businesses felt the hit, too. Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an employment consulting firm, estimates the flu epidemic cost businesses $15.4 billion in lost productivity. The estimate is much higher than the $7 billion in losses suffered by businesses in 2014 during the last flu epidemic.
Employees often feel they must “tough it out’ when they feel ill — which can just as often escalate the spread of the disease. Many employers are also poorly prepared for what they should do if key employees are absent. This winter, H3N2 caused an average of four sick days.
This is a good time for employers to anticipate the next flu season and create a business continuity plan in case critical business functions are interrupted.
To be prepared:
- Provide no-touch trash cans, tissues and hand sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent ethyl alcohol.
- Hold an on-site clinic. Flu vaccines increase productivity and decrease absenteeism, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Employees are more likely to get vaccinated when it’s convenient. If you decide to hold an onsite clinic, the best time is early in the flu season: September or October, before the peak season, December through February.
- If you do not hold a flu shot clinic, consider giving employees paid time off to get the shot and/or cover the cost of the shots.
- It pays to educate your workforce. Post flyers about the proper way to stop the spread of germs and provide training about what to do if flu-like symptoms develop.
- Reduce the anxiety of those employees who may be afraid to get the shot. While a flu shot can produce side effects like a headache or low-grade fever, it cannot cause the flu. People who get the flu after getting a shot unfortunately already had the flu.
- Everyone benefits when an employee gets vaccinated: Coworkers as well as the person getting vaccinated.
- While everyone is healthy, cross train your staff so they can cover for each other during an epidemic. This not only ensures that the work gets done, it helps employees increase their skill sets.
- During an epidemic, one tactic used to reduce the spread of viruses is to increase the number of shifts, so there are fewer people working at the jobsite at the same time.
- In worse-case situations, you might have to temporarily shut down operations and hire someone to do heavy duty cleaning of surfaces throughout your workspace.
- Discourage employees who are ill from coming into the office.
- Limit person-to-person meetings. Instead, opt for conference calls or video conferencing.
- Expand work from home options when practical and appropriate.
- Reassure employees that they will not lose their jobs if they stay home because of illness or for staying home to care for a sick family member.
- Eligible employees may need to utilize the Family and Medical Leave Act, so be aware that you might have an increase in administrative duties.
- You can implement a leave donation plan so employees can donate leave to coworkers who have exhausted their paid time-off benefits.
Encourage Safe Practices
- Tell employees if there has been a reported case in the workplace. You do not need to reveal the identity of the employee. You can notify employees that contagious illnesses may be present in the workplace and list the precautionary steps suggested by medical professionals.
- Encourage employees to limit contact with each other and customers and to frequently wash hands, avoid handshakes and even wear masks if necessary.
- Encourage employees to clean shared work spaces with alcohol wipes.
Don’t forget, when the threat of an epidemic is over, to notify employees that any policies or rules that were temporarily lifted, added or changed, are back to normal.