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We're barely into what is turning out to be one of the worst flu seasons in a decade, and employers already are seeing the symptoms in terms of increased costs and decreased productivity.
According to information from Chicago-based consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, with three months of flu season still looming, employers likely are experiencing increased health care costs and widespread absenteeism.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that, on average, seasonal flu outbreaks cost the nation's employers $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalizations and outpatient visits, according to a Jan. 9 Challenger press release, and that number does not include the indirect costs related to lost productivity and absenteeism.
The press release from the Chicago-based consulting firm said employers only exacerbate the problems when the corporate culture is one that encourages ill employees to come to work.
“Companies should be taking steps to encourage people to stay home when they're contagious” and looking for alternative ways for people to do their work so they are not spreading the virus, John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told BNA Jan. 14.
“While sick employees may think they are doing the right thing by 'toughing it out' and coming into work when ill, the fact is they are only making matters worse. Whether it is motivated by job security or a desire to continue making a contribution in an overburdened workplace, presenteeism, as it has come to be called, only spreads illness to more workers and further damages the employers ability to meet demand,” Challenger said.
According to data from CDC, 29 states and New York City are now reporting high levels of influenza-like-illness (ILI), and another nine states are reporting moderate levels of ILI.
“We do see that it is spreading earlier [in the flu season] than normal … and it will be more severe than last season,” Michael Jhung, medical officer in CDC's Influenza Division, told BNA Jan. 16.
“The most prevalent strain, H3N2, is associated with more severe seasons than in the past,” he said. One reason this flu season is getting more attention is because the last couple of seasons have been “relatively mild,” Jhung said. “This year we are seeing much more activity,” he said.
Challenger offered best practices employers should consider to mitigate issues throughout the peak of flu season:
• Increase the number of shifts. This will reduce the number of people working in the office at one time.
• Limit meetings. If there is no need to gather large groups of workers in a confined space then do not do it. Conduct meetings via conference calls. Bigger companies may want to consider video conferencing.
• Expand telecommuting. Determine who can work from home or other locations. This will keep people off of public transportation and out of the office.
• Institute flexible leave policies to allow parents to care for an ill child or one who is home due to school closures.
• Provide no-touch trash cans and hand sanitizer.
• Encourage employees to wash their hands frequently, avoid handshaking, and take other hygienic precautions such as wearing a mask in heavily populated work areas.
• Assign someone to the post of “flu czar” or “workplace illness coordinator,” who would be responsible for monitoring absenteeism rates, coordinating leave, and informing employees of company measures to prevent and respond to an outbreak.
Challenger also recommended that companies think about their incentive and compensation structures. Many workers do not receive sick pay, he said, so it motivates employees to come in when they are sick. “Employers should revisit these policies to allow people to stay home,” Challenger advised.
“For those who must go to the workplace, such as retail workers and hands-on service providers, companies should enforce a three-foot minimum buffer between all personnel at all times,” Challenger recommended.
CDC said that over 90 percent of the influenza viruses that it has analyzed are like the viruses included in the 2012 to 2013 influenza vaccine.
Still, an employer cannot require employees to get the flu shot (30 HRR 1069, 10/8/12), unless they are in positions that can present a real health concern, such as a nurse in a hospital. Companies should, however, be proactive in providing resources for employees who would like to be vaccinated, Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management, told BNA Jan. 15.
“Employers have to be really careful about pushing for it,” Elliott said. The best way to promote the flu shot is to sponsor a clinic on site, making it convenient for employees, he said.
Resources that provide information on places to receive shots, health benefits that cover the preventive services, and other communications to navigating the flu season are also helpful, Elliott added.
Employers should take care to avoid making employees uncomfortable who may have allergies, religious issues, or other reasons for not getting the shot, he cautioned.
“This is really one of the bad flu seasons, particularly since 2008,” Elliott said. “The best advice is to provide employees with the most up to date resources and effectively communicate.”
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