worker sneezing

The flu epidemic is sweeping the U.S. this winter season. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), influenza-like illness is reported as widespread across all ten regions of the U.S., with the proportion of outpatient visits to healthcare providers reaching 7.1%, which is above the national baseline of 2.2% (CDC). Region 6 – Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, and region 2 – New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have been most impacted this season. Understanding that the flu often results in symptoms that make it difficult for employees to go to work, this epidemic not only has health implications, but can also affect business operations as a result of employee absenteeism and lost productivity.

The onset of the flu is typically abrupt and can be followed by symptoms like fever, severe body aches, chills, fatigue and weakness, sore throat, cough, headaches, and chest discomfort, among others. The illness rarely allows time for one to prepare to be unable to work for several days, but on-the-job is not the place to be with active flu symptoms. Symptoms improve for most people within in a few days, but it can take up to two weeks to recover for those who are more severely ill. According to the CDC, complications of the flu can also be life-threatening and result in death.

We all do it, right? We go to work when we’re not feeling our best because we have piles of work to complete, deadlines to meet, clients to serve, or because we just don’t want to disappoint management or colleagues by being out. Sometimes we believe the pros of presence and being semi-productive outweigh the cons of falling behind or sharing with others whatever ailment has us down. However, when that fever spikes, we begin to recognize that the decision to go to work was maybe not well made. Employees who work while they are sick, particularly with influenza-like illness, can exacerbate the flu epidemic by spreading the illness throughout the workplace.

The modern workplace tends to take the shape of what we all know as “cube farms,” or open areas where employees work closely seated, without walls, often sharing common workstation equipment. Also, creative spaces are available where ideas incubate over employer-provided snacks and team building games. It’s likely that with all of this shared space and equipment, it’s not just ideas that are incubating in these spaces — cold and flu viruses thrive there too.

In an effort to reduce the spread of illness and improve employee attendance and productivity, employers may benefit from implementing pro-active solutions, accommodations if you will, to help keep the flu virus at bay. Consider some of these practical tips:

  • Disinfect regularly. We’re not just talking about coordinated cleaning of restrooms by the cleaning staff. Germs lurk in the most unsuspecting places. During cold and flu season, everyone can do their part to wipe down communal work surfaces, keyboards, mice, telephones, touch screens, chair arms, elevator buttons, breakroom appliances and food prep areas, copiers, printers, faucets, door handles, and so on. Consider implementing a policy or practice of having employees wipe-down their shared workstation after use. A supply of these germ fighting wipes can be made available for all employees to use.
  • Encourage sanitary behavior. Post signs in restrooms and food preparation areas encouraging employees to fight the flu and cold season with their own hands, literally, by washing their hands and using antibacterial hand sanitizer. The restrooms and food preparation areas can be stocked with antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers. Also, remind employees to cover their cough, provide tissues, and encourage good hygiene. Employees who wish to could be permitted to wear a mask or gloves to avoid exposure to cold and flu viruses.
  • Make it OK to stay home when the flu strikes. Create a workplace culture that discourages employees from attending work when sick and allows the opportunity to use an appropriate amount of leave to get well, without repercussions. Limiting the number of employees with cold and flu viruses in the workplace should decrease the likelihood of widespread illness. CDC recommends that people stay home for at least 24 hours after a fever is gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.
  • Don’t hold hands. Levy a campaign for employees to avoid shaking hands during cold and flu season, in favor of a friendly fist-bump or wave hello. In all seriousness, employees might be encouraged to reduce the spread of germs by keeping their distance and using other appropriate greetings.
  • Don’t meet for the sake of meeting. Sometimes group meetings are unnecessary and the work that must be accomplished can be done so in an alternative way. Cold and flu season is an opportune time to prevent the spread of illness by limiting the number of meetings held, holding meetings of shorter duration and limited attendance, or meeting via conference call or an online video meeting service.
  • Be flexible. Some employees (with improved symptoms) may be able to complete job-related tasks at home, or in an alternate location (e.g., private work area), for a temporary period. Be flexible and consider modifying a policy concerning where work is performed to allow telework, or a workstation change, when reasonable.
  • Be a partner in good health. Provide information to employees about flu vaccination. Implement flexible leave policies that allow employees time away from work to be vaccinated in the community. Or, host a flu vaccination clinic in the workplace. CDC recommends flu vaccination as the first step against fighting the flu.

These pro-active solutions may help improve attendance and productivity during cold and flu season, and may make the workplace a little safer for everyone. Taking part in the effort to fight the flu benefits workplaces and our communities. For more information about these types of workplace accommodations, contact JAN for assistance.

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