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.
New government data from the UK indicates that employees there are taking sick days off work at a historically low rate, Workplace Insight’s Neil Franklin reports:
A new report from the Office for National Statistics suggests that the number of sickness days taken by UK workers has almost halved over the past two decades to reach a record low. It dropped from an average of 7.2 days in 1993 to 4.1 days in 2017, and had been steadily falling since 1999. The total days lost for all workers last year was 131.2 million, down from 137.3 million in 2016 and 178.3 million in 1993. Since the recession, sickness absence rates have declined by 0.5 percentage points to 1.9 per cent last year. The reasons are not explored in the report but one possible explanation would be the growing number of people prepared to work when they should really take time off.
A report published in May by the CIPD and SimplyHealth on the state of health and wellbeing in the UK workplace found that presenteeism (workers showing up to work even when sick) was a growing problem, with 86 percent of employers saying they had seen staff come into work while sick over the previous year. That marked a significant increase from 72 percent in 2016 and just 26 percent in 2010, yet the same survey found that only a quarter of organizations that had seen signs of presenteeism had taken steps to mitigate it. The CIPD/SimplyHealth report also found that many employees were working while they were supposed to be on vacation, while other recent studies have suggested that many full-time UK employees aren’t taking the full paid leave benefit to which they are entitled.
Presenteeism could well be a factor in the trend identified by the ONS, Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, told Ashleigh Wight at Personnel Today.
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.
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”:
There’s considerable evidence that giving employees paid sick days is a smart move: It discourages presenteeism and makes for a healthier workplace. Studies have found that cities that have mandated paid sick leave in recent years have made gains in public health as a result, while the costs to employers have been far lower than opponents of these mandates had feared. But paid sick leave doesn’t just benefit organizations in the obvious way, by making it easier for sick employees to stay home; as health economist Austin Frakt observes at the New York Times, it has other upsides as well:
Low-income mothers are particularly likely to work while sick. Another study, by LeaAnne DeRigne of Florida Atlantic University and colleagues, explains why. It found that families with less ability to afford unpaid time off are more likely to lack paid sick leave. According to the study, published in Health Affairs, 65 percent of families with incomes below $35,000 had no paid sick leave, while the same was true of only 25 percent of families with annual incomes above $100,000. …
Paid sick leave has other benefits besides reducing flu deaths. For example, workers may use it for preventive care, forestalling subsequent, more disruptive health problems. Workers lacking paid sick leave are more likely to delay needed medical care, a finding that holds for both insured and uninsured workers. In other words, though health insurance helps people pay for health care, it does nothing to help them afford to take time off to get it.
While US federal law does not require employers to offer paid sick leave, five states and more than two dozen municipalities—including New York City, Washington, and San Francisco, have implemented mandates of their own. Just this week, St. Paul, Minnesota became the latest city to introduce such a law. Mandatory or not, paid sick leave is a great benefit to offer: It reduces “presenteeism” (sick employees showing up to work) and has a notably positive impact on the well-being and productivity of employees, who are able to recuperate from illness or injury before returning to work, as well as on the overall health of the workplace. But it does cost employers money, which is why opponents of mandates contend that they are inappropriate as they can lead to lost jobs and cuts to wages or other benefits.
However, recent research has found that the public health benefits of sick leave mandates tend to outweigh their costs. Slate’s Henry Grabar highlights another new paper investigating how employers responded to New York’s Earned Sick Time Act, which was introduced in 2013 and mandates that private companies or nonprofit organizations with five or more employees provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. For employers, the study finds, the law has largely been a “non-event”:
Their survey of 350 random New York businesses, stratified to appropriately represent different firm sizes, says: 85 percent of employers reported the law had no effect on business costs, 91 percent reported no reduction in hiring, 94 percent reported no effect on business productivity, and 96 percent reported no change in customer service.