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.
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.
In the US, the 2017-2018 flu season is not even over, but it’s already the worst in nearly a decade, the New York Times reported last week:
Nationally, the number of people falling ill with flu is increasing. More worrying, the hospitalization rate — a predictor of the death rate — has just jumped. It is now on track to equal or surpass that of the 2014-2015 flu season. In that year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, 34 million Americans got the flu, 710,000 were hospitalized and about 56,000 died.
While the 2009 pandemic of the H1N1 strain of influenza (known as “swine flu”) caused more people to fall ill, Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the CDC’s influenza division, told the Times, the dominant virus this year is the H3N2 strain, which first emerged in the deadly “Hong Kong flu” pandemic of 1968-69 and was also responsible for the high numbers of flu victims in the 1997-1998 and 2003-2004 seasons. A disconcerting feature of this year’s flu is that an unusual number of hospitalizations are occurring among middle-aged patients:
As is typical, people over 65 are the most likely to be hospitalized. But in an unusual twist, those aged 50 to 64 — rather than infants — are the age cohort right behind the elderly. … Hospitalizations and deaths among people in that age group can hurt the economy more than deaths of the elderly, he noted, since they are in their peak earning years and often in supervisory positions.
In recent years, behavioral economists have become increasingly enthusiastic about the concept of “nudging”—prodding people toward more beneficial behaviors by making them the default option in some of the many choices individuals make about their health or finances. An example of nudging with which employers will be familiar is auto-enrollment in 401(k) plans, which past research has shown results in much higher participation rates than an opt-in system: When the default option is to participate, employees are more likely to do so because it takes more effort not to. Employers have also experimented with nudging strategies to encourage employees toward healthy choices like getting their yearly flu shot.
The latest research The Association for Psychological Science highlights a new study published last week that “compared the effectiveness of nudge-type strategies with more standard policy interventions” and found that nudges are substantially more effective at encouraging both financial and physical wellness:
In the case of retirement savings, for example, a nudge that prompted new employees to indicate their preferred contribution rate to a workplace retirement-savings plan yielded a $100 increase in employee contributions per $1 spent on implementing the program; the next most cost-effective strategy, offering monetary incentives for employees who attended a benefits fair, yielded only a $14.58 increase in employee contributions per $1 spent on the program.
Staples published its seventh annual cold and flu season survey last week, showing that while most employees and managers are well aware of the dangers of presenteeism and the importance of prevention, many workplaces still don’t take precautions to prevent the spread of seasonal illness, and many employees refuse or feel unable to take time off from work when they get sick, even though 73 percent of employees say they have caught a cold or the flu at work, and nearly one third say they caught a bug from a coworker last year.
The survey highlights several steps employers can take to reduce the spread of germs in their offices:
- Less than half (only 48 percent) of employees say their office provides disinfecting wipes to clean their work surfaces. To combat this, if employers aren’t providing these or other disinfectant products, 77 percent bring them to the workplace on their own.
- Nearly two-thirds (61 percent) of workers think employers should offer office-wide flu shots.
- Although most employers provide sick days, too many employees hesitate to use them when they should. Seventy-four percent think employers should encourage workers to rest and get better when they get sick.
Presenteeism can be a big problem in the workplace, and respondents to Staples’ survey know it: 67 percent said an employee going into work sick and not fully productive was worse for their organization than them staying home, compared to just 31 percent who said so in a 2014 survey. Nonetheless, Staples found, “workers don’t practice what they preach with regard to keeping illness at home”:
Flu season is upon us in the northern hemisphere, and given the significant business costs of a flu outbreak in the workplace, many employers are now holding seasonal on-site clinics where employees can get vaccinated against it. However, Roberta Holland points out at Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge blog, most employees who can get a free flu shot at or near their workplace don’t take the opportunity to do so. That brings her to Harvard professor and behavioral economist John Beshears, who recently studied what motivates employees to visit an on-site flu clinic (or rather what discourages them from doing so) and found that something as simple as the location of the clinic can make a big difference:
Beshears and colleagues tracked 1,801 employees of a health benefits administrator, Express Scripts, during the 2011-2012 flu season. Their goal was to determine whether there was any link between getting vaccinated and how far the clinic was from someone’s office, or how their daily routine brought him or her near the clinic location. …
Beshears and his colleagues used building blueprints to measure base proximity, or how far workers had to walk to get to the clinic from their offices or desks. They used badge swipes at a passageway near the clinic to determine functional proximity, or how often employees were passing by the clinic location on a typical day. Each employee was assigned an anonymous ID code, which allowed Beshears to match the data with whether that individual got a flu shot without identifying workers by name.