Bloomberg Law | Employers Coping With Worse Than Usual Flu Season

(Story by Martin Berman-Gorvine originally appeared in Bloomberg Law)

This year’s dominant flu strain is making people sicker than any in recent years and could end up costing employers nearly $10 billion in lost productivity alone.

Employers need to pay attention because they lose almost 17 million working days a year when their employees are down with the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that’s in a typical year. ‘

‘It’s significantly worse than the average year,’’ Alan Kohll, founder of wellness program provider TotalWellness, told Bloomberg Law Jan. 17. Recent unusually cold weather in much of the country made matters worse because people spent more time indoors, where they could more easily spread the flu to each other, he said.

The present flu season ‘‘is on pace to be as bad if not worse than the 2014-15 flu season, which was one of the worst we’ve had in many years,’’ Andrew Challenger, vice president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told Bloomberg Law Jan. 17. His company estimates the cost to employers in lost productivity could reach $9.4 billion.

Challenger said employers have to discourage ‘‘presenteeism’’ in which sick employees convince themselves that their presence at work is somehow crucial to the company. He suggested employers also avoid holding meetings that crowd a number of people into a small room, making the spread of flu more likely, and that retailers and other shift-based businesses consider increasing the number of shifts but making each shift shorter, to decrease the number of employees working (and potentially spreading the flu around) at any given time.

Kohll said that ‘‘teledoc’’ services—remote medical advice and care—that some employer health plans offer can be helpful to employees with flu.

Due to the unpredictable mutations of the various flu viruses circulating in the population, the annual vaccines with the widest availability don’t offer the best coverage, but immunization is still worth it because it does protect against some strains, Kohll said.

Advice From the CDC The flu strain popping up the most now is known as H3N2, an abbreviation that indicates the specific types of proteins characteristic of each type of flu virus, Dr. Lisa Koonin, deputy director of the influenza coordination unit at the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases in Atlanta, told Bloomberg Law Jan. 18. The number of people sick with flu nationwide has been rising every week and will soon peak,

The number of people sick with flu nationwide has been rising every week and will soon peak, Koonin said, but even as it begins to fall there will still be a lot of people suffering from the flu for several weeks. Koonin said three pieces of advice are most important for employers to protect their employees:

  • Advise employees to get vaccinated against the flu. ‘‘It’s not too late,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s the best way to prevent flu and serious complications.’’
  • ‘‘It’s very helpful if sick people stay home while sick to avoid spreading flu to other workers. HR should look to policies and encourage people with flulike symptoms to stay home till they’re better.’’
  • Everyday preventive actions like good handwashing, getting enough rest, and eating well keep the immune system as strong as possible. If you do get sick, cover your mouth when you cough and avoid touching the eyes, nose, and mouth.

The CDC recommends that people who are very sick with the flu or in higher risk categories be treated with antiviral medicines, Koonin said.

Reproduced with permission from Daily Labor Report, 13 DLR 23 (Jan. 19, 2018). Copyright 2018 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033)

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