Open Offices, Presenteeism Seen as Causes of Flu Season’s Economic Toll

Open Offices, Presenteeism Seen as Causes of Flu Season’s Economic Toll

The US is currently suffering through the worst flu season since 2009, with the highly virulent H3N2 strain, which first emerged in the deadly “Hong Kong flu” pandemic of 1968-69, sending Americans to the hospital in great numbers. Making matters worse is that the flu vaccine this year is only about 30 percent effective against the H3N2 virus, though doctors still recommend that adults get themselves vaccinated.

Between employee absences, lost productivity, and the risk of the disease spreading in the workplace, a harsh flu season is extraordinarily costly to employers. The outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which tallies the economic impact of the flu each year, originally estimated that this year’s virus would cost the US $9.4 billion in lost productivity; in a press release issued on Wednesday, Challenger more than doubled that projection to $21.4 billion, based on updated information from the Centers for Disease Control suggesting that approximately 25 million American workers will have caught the flu by the time the season is over.

Challenger also ventured the theory that the open-plan offices adopted by many US organizations in the past decade could be exacerbating the impact of this particularly virulent flu in the workplace:

“The flu season is still going strong and workers continue to fall ill. One potential driver of the spread of the flu could be the open office trend that so many companies implemented in the last decade,” said Andrew Challenger, Vice President of global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. “When you take away walls, workers are in near constant contact with one another. During an aggressive flu season, this could affect entire companies, especially for the small and mid-size firms and start-ups that so often utilize this concept,” said Challenger.

Challenger recommends that organizations treat common spaces “as gyms treat exercise equipment”: clean them daily with disinfectant and make sure to keep a steady supply of soap and hand sanitizer available.

The consultancy also recommends allowing employees to stay home sick without fear of losing their jobs and to implement flexible leave policies to allow parents to care for sick children. Unfortunately, millions of Americans lack access to paid sick leave, meaning they must choose between going to work sick and forgoing their pay. Most of these individuals are low-income workers who often can’t afford to lose a day’s pay, so they go to work and muddle through.

In the past decade, several studies have concluded that this phenomenon of “presenteeism” is making flu epidemics worse and that when more employees have access to paid sick leave, the number of infections decreases significantly. Studies have also shown that paid sick leave is beneficial to both employees and employers by improving workplace health and safety. At the Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham highlights some more recent research on how access to paid sick leave helps reduce the incidence of flu:

More recently, a paper published in PLOS One last year found that access to paid sick leave made employees significantly more likely to stay home when dealing with an influenza-like illness. “We conclude that access to [paid sick days] is likely to reduce the spread of disease in workplaces by increasing the rate at which sick employees stay home from work, and reduce the economic burden of staying home on minorities, women, and families,” that report concluded.

Although employers who don’t currently offer paid sick leave might balk at the costs, a substantial body of research suggests paid sick days might effectively pay for themselves by reducing overall rates of absenteeism. A study published last year by researchers at the CDC found that “providing paid sick leave to workers who lack it might help decrease the number of workdays lost as a result of flu and similar illnesses by nearly 4 to 11 million per year,” resulting in an overall cost savings of $1 billion to $2 billion.