The flu season is upon us in the northern hemisphere, with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting this week that the annual spike in influenza cases was just starting (later than usual) and that this year’s flu appeared to be hitting children particularly hard. While this year may not be as bad as last year, when the annual flu vaccine was only about 30 percent effective against the highly virulent H3N2 strain, which put large numbers of Americans in the hospital, the flu is a perennial winter health hazard, particularly in the close confines of a shared workspace. Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates that this year’s flu could cost US employers over $17 billion in lost productivity. That’s not as much as the $21 billion it estimated for last year, but still would represent a meaningful dent in the economy:
Last year’s flu season sickened nearly 49 million people, 32.5 million of whom were over the age of 25, according to the CDC’s age breakdown of flu infections for the 2017-18 season. Last season was the worst since 2009, when that year’s H1N1 strain sickened an estimated 60.8 million people, with more than 40 million of those affected over the age of 18.
Challenger predicts 20 million workers could take four eight-hour days away from work due to the flu. Using the current employment-population ratio of 60.6 percent, and the average hourly wage of $27.48, the cost to employers could hit $17,587,200,000 over the course of the season.
Last year, Challenger proposed that open-plan offices might be one potential driver of the spread of flu in the workplace. This year, the outplacement consultancy’s vice president Andrew Challenger suggests that employers take advantage of opportunities to let employees work from home, the better to reduce direct contact with contagious co-workers, considering that many employees see these opportunities as a perk anyway.
There are a number of steps employers can take to help prevent the spread of flu in their workplaces, such as offering on-site flu shots, providing employees with disinfectant wipes for hands and work surfaces, or providing paid sick leave to discourage presenteeism. When employees show up to work sick, not only are they less productive than usual, they also put their coworkers at risk, particularly with a highly contagious disease like the flu. Even if your organization does not provide paid sick leave, you still have the right to send employees home if they are clearly ill, and can consider allowing them to use vacation time or to work from home instead. With this year’s flu apparently affecting more children than usual, you might also anticipate that the parents in your workforce will have a greater than usual need to stay home to take care of their sick kids and make plans to accommodate that need.